Valentine, Japan share mutual admiration
'Sensei' of baseball plans fundraiser to aid tsunami relief
It wasn't the start to his managerial career in Japan that Bobby Valentine had hoped for.
It was Jan. 17, 1995, and Valentine was in the midst of his first news conference in Japan, held in the airport just moments after he touched down. Valentine had come to Japan to take over the Chiba Lotte Marines, a team that hadn't won the pennant since 1974. Fresh off managing the Texas Rangers for 1,186 games -- including a stretch of four straight seasons with a winning record -- the arrival of the high-profile and successful manager was big news in Japan.
But as the manager soon learned, he wasn't the biggest news of the day.
Valentine smiled and patiently answered questions from the media as the scrum and the constant flashes of the cameras pressed against him. Just minutes into what was to be his introduction to Japanese baseball, Valentine instead got an introduction to Japanese life.
After his plane touched down, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck near the city of Kobe, as thousands lost their lives and tens of thousands lost their homes.
"I was having the press conference when the earthquake struck," Valentine told MLB.com. "The reporters all left -- I guess they figured they had something more important going on."
Valentine learned to live with the daily fear of the devastation that killed tens of thousands on March 11 as a tsunami swept across large swaths of northeast Japan. The 8.9-magnitude earthquake that triggered the wave that swept away so many lives was something Valentine said was part of Japanese life.
"I don't know if I'd say there was a social awareness about it, but it was just something you learned was part of life," Valentine said. "I experienced hundreds of earthquakes when I was there -- hundreds. Most of them were of the four- or five-magnitude variety. There were a couple tsunami warnings, too. It's just something that was, something you deal with."
And now, Valentine is dealing with the impact of the tsunami the best way he knows how -- by giving and using his celebrity as a baseball manager to full effect. Valentine is spearheading a Stamford on the Sound charity event on Saturday, in which he will bring together former players, sports personalities and Hollywood celebrities, including former players David Cone, Darryl Strawberry and Lee Mazzilli.
Valentine's first stint in Japan lasted just one year, as he returned to the United States, joining the Mets organization, becoming manager in 1996. It was against the backdrop of orange seats and the blue outfield walls of Shea Stadium that Valentine would find success, leading the Mets into the National League Championship Series in 1999 and to the World Series the following year. After being dismissed in 2002 following a disappointing 75-86 record, Valentine returned to Japan. Once again, he put on the black and white of Chiba Lotte.
There is no one singular moment, Valentine says, that sums up his love for the island nation, but it was a passion that was apparent from the onset.
"I think he really tried to dive into Japanese culture headfirst," said Steve Novosel, a Texan now living in Japan who runs the English-language fansite WeLoveMarines.com. "He made a big effort to learn the language, for example. The first time I met Bobby, in fact, he asked me how my language studies were going and offered some advice on a text to use to study. Bobby was a true ambassador for Japanese baseball."
Valentine counts hundreds of friends in Japan, the product of his gregarious penchant for making friends and his deep respect for the traditions and culture of his second home. Japan's reverential appreciation for masters of any tradition has led to a fanatical following for Valentine throughout the nation, as he is revered as a sensei of baseball.
Wherever the team traveled, he was greeted as a hero. Opposing fans politely applauded as he strolled by on the field, asking him to pose for a photograph -- even as they wore the caps of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles or the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He taught clinics and promoted the game every which way he could.
"Such passionate people for the game," Valentine said. "They followed and lived the team. I remember seeing grandmothers taking their granddaughters to games. The traditions ran deep."
But as with all things, his time in Japan ended and Valentine returned back to the United States in 2009 after a controversial dismissal. He left deeply moved by the outpouring of love from the Japanese people and with countless friendships he made on the island.
After the devastation, he reached out to AmeriCare, a humanitarian relief organization based in his hometown of Stamford, Conn. After some calls from Valentine to Japan, he was able to help coordinate destinations for $600,000 in medical supplies going from AmeriCare to the stricken areas.
The tragedy struck him hard; Valentine's first thoughts as he sat and watched the television reports on the tsunami were of his friends on the island.
"I was calling immediately, constantly," Valentine said. "It took a while. The cell service was obviously down for a while. Some lost everything they had except for their loved ones. They were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Some didn't even have that, to be honest."
Valentine remains mum on how much he wants to raise from his charity event, but he has already secured several prominent sponsors and hopes to sell 1,000 tickets to the event, bringing together groups such as the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, The Japanese-American Association of New York, BLT Harbor Point and the Manassy Media Group.
"We want to do as well as we can, raise as much as we can," Valentine said. "But in something like this, you don't have to hit a home run. You can hit the warning track here and we'd be quite happy."
Kristian Dyer is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.