|Manager Bobby Valentine has a pat for catcher Tomoya Satozaki after a Chiba Lotte Marines win last October. (File/Kyodo News/Via Associated Press)|
TOKYO - If Bobby Valentine has anything to do with it, the Red Sox will consider Japan as something more than the most exotic section of their 2008 scrapbook, or the place they occasionally raid and come back with the likes of Daisuke Matsuzaka or Hideki Okajima.
Valentine, a Connecticut Yankee who made his mark in the big leagues as a player and manager (he took the Mets to the 2000 World Series) but in Japan enjoys a stature akin to a baseball deity, has a vision that his Chiba Lotte Marines and the Red Sox will partner to radically transform the way the major leagues and Japanese baseball do business.
The partnership, which was formalized last summer when the Sox and Marines entered a three-year working agreement, is still in its infancy, but Valentine's voice resonates with the same enthusiasm he brought to Chiba Lotte, whose team had gone 31 years without winning the Japan Series until Valentine worked his magic as manager in 2005. The working agreement he imagines having with the Sox is much different from the customary arrangement, which usually means little more than Japanese teams having first dibs on big-league spare parts.
"We're doing some minor things now," Valentine said. "Things like sharing information between our medical staffs and training staffs, sending people from the business side to exchange ideas, but that's only the beginning.
"We're all over the place, trying everything we can. We've talked about cooperative things, like a winter-league team on the Australian Gold Coast or our southern islands, something together in the Dominican, both of us sending coaches and players. We've talked about having an independent league team here."
So far, the shared baseball operations are still just ideas bounced back and forth between Valentine and Sox officials, most notably Craig Shipley, the team's vice president for international scouting, and Jon Deeble, the Pacific Rim coordinator. But Boston's willingness to try new things was demonstrated anew yesterday, when the Sox signed an independent league pitcher, Terumasa Matsuo of the Kagawa Olive Guyners, to a minor league contract.
Matsuo, 26, was 15-3 with an ERA of 1.75 and 159 strikeouts last season in the Shikoku Island independent league, and was named the league's MVP. Matsuo, who is scheduled to report to the Sox training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., in a couple of days, is reported to be the first independent league player to be signed by a big-league club. Matsuo's teammate, catcher Hayato Doue, reportedly is still in negotiations with the Sox.
"I don't want to wait - I'm ready to jump," Valentine said of potential future working arrangements. "I want to do everything. But the Red Sox are too smart. They move more cautiously."
Muted on Matsuzaka
Valentine and his Harvard-educated manager of baseball operations, Shun Kakazu, assisted the Sox in gathering information when they were preparing to make a run at Matsuzaka and Okajima, but Valentine said he is not in the business of helping to procure talent for the Sox. He said he still has mixed feelings about Matsuzaka, Japan's best pitcher, leaving to play in the big leagues.
"There's a void left that hasn't been filled," he said. "I'm happy for his success, he's in a good place, a place that needs him, but there still has to be some kind of situation that allows both sides to prosper. Japanese Baseball has got to figure out how to do it. They've got to learn how to develop players, spend money on players."
The Sox paid the Seibu Lions a posting fee of $51.1 million to negotiate with Matsuzaka, but much of that money was targeted either for stadium improvements or the signing of foreign-born players to supplement their roster. Valentine would like to see that money going toward developing home-grown talent; in a country where there are hundreds of high school and university teams, the Japanese League teams have just one minor league team apiece.
Japanese teams don't have the financial resources to compete with major league teams when it comes to trying to retain stars like Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki, so Valentine says ways must be found to replenish the loss of that talent.
Valentine, incidentally, was somewhat muted in his assessment of how Matsuzaka performed for the Sox last season.
"All things considered, he met most expectations," Valentine said. "It was an incredible learning experience for him, and to be able to go into that situation and not be chewed up and spit out is an accomplishment of its own.
"But was that as good as he can pitch? I doubt it. He didn't pitch as well as he did here. There were adjustments he had to make - to the ball, to the mound, to the hitters, to the catcher, to himself - but he was a fastball-slider pitcher there last season. I didn't see the guy who threw splits and changes and cutters to my eighth and ninth hitters.
"I don't know if he got caught up with the two guys [Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling] pitching ahead of him and tried to match them pitch for pitch, but he has to do a better job of getting his team back into the dugout.
"His ego seemed to jump out in front of his competitive instincts. I don't know if that's true, but it looked like it. What makes him special is his ability to throw multiple pitches in all counts to either side of the plate, and I didn't see that last season."
On the flip side, Valentine said he wasn't surprised that Okajima thrived.
"When we played Nippon Ham," Valentine said of Okajima's team in 2006, "he was the guy we least wanted to see in the game. We couldn't touch him. I've always said, a lefthander who can throw the ball over the plate with more than one pitch is going to be successful, and he has that fastball, changeup, and curve that he can do that with."
Valentine first managed in Japan in 1995, when he took a job with Chiba Lotte, but he was fired after just one season, having clashed with management and players. A Sports Illustrated profile last summer noted that when Valentine speaks before groups, he often likes to introduce himself by saying, I am the only guy in the history of the world to manage in the American League in the MLB and the National League in the MLB and the JPL of the Japan professional baseball league. [Pause for applause.] I'm also the only one to be fired in the American League . . . and the National League . . . and the JPL of the Japan professional baseball league."
If Valentine leaves now, it almost certainly will be of his own volition. He not only won in his second go-round with Chiba Lotte, but he brought a distinctly American, showman-like approach to marketing the game, enhancing the fan experience by insisting his players sign autographs, allowing kids to run the bases, relentlessly drumming up business for the team with a repertoire of promotions straight out of the Mike Veeck handbook.
Valentine also created a cult of personality: You can buy Bobby Valentine bubble gum, a Bobby Valentine box lunch, Bobby Valentine beer. He is a guest lecturer at four Japanese universities, and Sports Illustrated cited a Japanese magazine poll in which Valentine was named the person those surveyed said they'd most like to work for.
"Bobby has made an incredible connection with the fans," said Laurence Rocca, a Colby College graduate and former sportswriter who joined Valentine here almost four years ago as marketing and promotions director and found himself running onto the field on a nightly basis as "M-Crash," a mascot of his invention, complete with shimmering gold lame tuxedo, red
"Bobby," Rocca said, "walks on water with the fans."
Rocca later elaborated in an e-mail. "Because of how regimented things are [in Japan], it's acceptable to keep doing things the 'wrong way,' even when most people realize it, as long as it's the prescribed way. So, if you are introducing change, and all the costs that go with it, you really had better be right.
"Bobby is atypical in Japan in that he not only instructs his players to think on their own, he rewards them for failure, as long as they had the right idea. That license to think on their own and be more emotional in general has caught on big-time with our players, especially the younger guys, but also with the fans, who are truly different than those of the other teams and for many years were cheering for a last-place-loser joke of a team."
Perhaps the greatest measure of Valentine's penetration into the culture of Japanese baseball is that after winning in '05, he became the first foreigner to win the Shoriki Award, presented annually to the person who makes the greatest contribution to Japanese baseball.
This spring, ESPN plans to air a documentary on Valentine, "Bobby V in Japan," filmed by a crew of young filmmakers from NYU granted 24/7 access to the manager. That included an overnight climb of Mt. Fuji to witness the sunrise.
"Almost turned into one of the stupidest things I'd ever done in my life," Valentine said. "The temperature dropped 30 degrees and the wind was blowing 70 miles an hour. We were in peril. But by the end of the day, we got it done."
In Japan, happy endings have been a way of life for Valentine, who at 57 said he doesn't know whether he'll come back to the States to manage. The Chiba Lotte owner offered him a lifetime deal to stay.
"I don't know whose lifetime he meant," Valentine said with a laugh. "I try to live in the present. I'm 57 years old, I love what I'm doing, and three years from now that's what I expect to be doing, managing."
In the meantime, there are bridges to be built with Boston. Hands across the water, heads across the sky.
Daigo Fujiwara of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.