For the sports fans out there (I’m indifferent about baseball except if it’s the Fighters), here’s the NYT on how the fans are battling the management to keep their NJ baseball manager. Comments? Debito
The New York Times
May 21, 2009
Japanese Fans Mobilize to Try to Keep Valentine as Their Manager
By DAVID WALDSTEIN
CHIBA, Japan — After nine innings of sustained chanting and singing, about 150 of the most loyal fans remained behind in silence with their banners raised over their heads, the Japanese characters on the 70-foot signs shouting out in protest from the right-field bleachers.
“We would rather fight with Bobby, who says we’re the world’s best fans,” one sign read, “than with a front office who calls us worthless.”
“Bobby stands behind us. We stand behind Bobby,” read another.
It was the third consecutive game that the fans had staged this unusual protest, all part of a campaign to force the Chiba Lotte Marines to reverse course and keep Bobby Valentine, a baseball lifer from America, as their manager beyond the current season.
For six weeks, the fans of the Marines have been engaged in a battle with the front office over the fate of Valentine, who was told over the winter that his contract would not be renewed for financial reasons, despite his success with the team.
With over 50,000 signatures on a petition to keep Valentine, this is a struggle, the fans believe, that goes to the heart of Japanese baseball. They see Valentine as a positive influence who is leading the team and the sport toward a more viable future by promoting more access to players and more fan-friendly marketing concepts.
At the same time, they view the current front office, led by the team president, Ryuzo Setoyama, as more interested in the old status quo, when, they contend, fans were treated less as coveted customers and more as people expected to attend games out of a sense of duty. Although the team insists that Valentine simply makes too much money to be retained in 2010, the fans believe other factors may be in play.
“This problem is more than Japanese baseball itself; it’s about the Japanese society,” Kazuhiro Yasuzumi, a 39-year-old Marines fan and leader of the protest, said through an interpreter. He said that people with power and influence in Japan did not necessarily appreciate someone like Valentine, who has never been bashful about offering his opinion.
Valentine is indeed paid a lot of money: $3.9 million per season. When, and if, he goes, he will take with him some significant accomplishments, starting with the championship he won in 2005, the Marines’ first in 31 years. It was after that feat that he became the only foreigner to win the prestigious Shoriki Award for contributions to Japanese baseball.
During his six seasons in Chiba (Valentine also managed here for one season in 1995 before returning to the United States to manage the Mets), membership in the team’s fan club has grown by 600 percent to 140,000 card-carrying members and team revenues have increased by 400 percent. The street where he lives in Chiba has been renamed Valentine’s Way.
Still, Setoyama announced over the winter that the team could no longer afford Valentine and that he would not be retained after the 2009 season, angering some fans and mobilizing others.
In 1995, when Valentine was fired after one season, fans attempted to generate a petition on his behalf, but the effort was too late. This time they vowed to be better organized.
So, when Valentine returned to Japan in January to begin to prepare for the season, the protests began. Two hundred fans greeted him at the airport when he arrived. On opening day in early April, Marines fans unfurled a 200-foot banner that read, “Marines Is My Life,” but then quickly rolled it up to reveal more than a dozen flags, pennants and banners proclaiming support for Valentine.
Some of the banners displayed Valentine’s likeness or the No. 2 he wears on his jersey. Some read, “Bobby 2010”; others stated, “Respect Bobby,” in English.
Valentine said the protest left him in tears. He was not the only one affected.
“I got chills,” said Hiram Bocachica, a former major leaguer now with the Lions. “You don’t expect that for a manager.”
The fans also took their protest beyond the stands, going directly to the acting team owner, Akio Shigemitsu, in the stadium parking lot after one game and asking him to reconsider. Then came a front-office meeting. The minutes of that meeting were leaked to the Japanese press and portrayed Setoyama, the team president, speaking derisively about the team’s fans and discussing the possibility of moving the team out of Chiba.
In response, the team held a news conference in which Shigemitsu declared his support for Valentine through the end of the season and denied the team might be moved. Setoyama disputed the comments attributed to him in the news media reports; he did not respond to a request by The New York Times for an interview.
Meanwhile, Lotte, the team’s multinational parent company, is conducting an internal review of the circumstances surrounding Valentine and the club. And as it does, the protests continue. At every home game fans are greeted by supporters of Valentine asking for more petition signatures. The banners supporting him are unfurled every time a Marine batter reaches base. There are even rumblings of a silent protest in the right-field stands, where the loudest cheering section is traditionally situated.
“It’s an ugly battle taking place, but I think it’s only a blip on the screen,” said Jim Small, Major League Baseball’s top executive in Asia, when asked about the Valentine controversy. “For the most part, I think the trend is toward the new way of thinking, and that started with the Marines.”
And more particularly with Valentine, who took such steps as opening the windows of his office to give out autographs to surprised patrons and having some of the protective netting around the field removed so players could sign for fans. Normally loquacious, he has tried to keep a distance from the protests. But he did salute the fans for their support, and what he termed the magic show, when the banners supporting him appear “out of nowhere.”
Valentine also knows there is talk that he will be back managing in the major leagues before long but says any speculation about next year is insulting to those who have taken up his cause.
“I always talk about passion and commitment, but they have one-upped me,” he said of those fans. “They have committed themselves to the team, and whether it’s 1-1 in the 12th or 19-1 in the ninth, they always have incredible passion for the team. It’s inspiring. It’s a great life lesson for anybody.”