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Valentine living it up in Japan as Marine faithful think pennant

by

The Associated Press

Bobby Valentine isn’t interested in talking about when or if he’ll make a return to the major leagues. The former New York Mets manager is perfectly happy here in Japan.

Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines hold first place in the Pacific League, he’s adored by the Lotte fans, admired by his players and is getting some of the best sushi to be had on the face of the earth. What’s not to like?

On top of all that, Valentine, who is in the middle year of a three-year contract with the Marines, gets to do a lot of things over here he’d never be doing back home.

“He has a lot more control here,” said former Mets outfielder Benny Agbayani, who bats cleanup for the Marines and is off to a solid start with six homers and 37 RBIs. “He can do more with the team here than back home.”

A quick visit to Chiba Marine Stadium proves the point. Valentine is everywhere. One minute he’s on top of the Lotte dugout signing autographs at the “Marine Sign Zone,” the next minute he’s hitting grounders to his infield just before the game.

Before the season, Valentine had a hand in designing the team’s flashy new alternate uniforms and convinced Lotte management to hire a promotions manager to come up with new and creative ways to put more people in the stands.

There’s even a Valentine Shrine at a nearby shopping mall where Lotte fans can rub a miniature statue of Bobby V. for good luck. The team’s 2005 slogan –“Building Our Dream” — is written in huge gold lettering.

It’s no small coincidence that Lotte’s home stadium is just a few stops down the line from Tokyo Disneyland. Chiba is a fun place to be this year.

On Friday, Valentine’s players presented him with a cake to celebrate his 55th birthday and everybody showed up wearing a fake nose and glasses in tribute to the infamous incident when he got thrown out of a game and returned to the dugout wearing the dubious disguise.

But when it comes to talking about the team, Valentine is all business. The Marines narrowly missed the Pacific League playoffs last year after a fourth-place finish.

The team put together a 12-game winning streak earlier this season. They’ve cooled off of late but with a record of 28-13, Lotte is still off to its best start in years and Valentine has the Chiba faithful thinking pennant.

“The biggest difference this season is the development of our younger players,” Valentine said before Saturday’s game against the Yakult Swallows. “Imae and Nishioka have been an inspiration to all the older players.”

That would be 21-year-old Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who is batting .321 with 42 hits and 22 RBIs, and 22-year-old Toshiaki Imae (.268, 33 hits, 22 RBIs).

Another former Mets player, Matt Franco, is also off to a strong start and is second in Pacific League batting with a .338 average and 29 RBIs.

Like Valentine, Franco is thrilled to be in Japan. “It’s great here,” said Franco. “The level of baseball is very high, the fans are the best and playing for Bobby is awesome.”

As a manager, Valentine has a 1,117-1,072 record over 15 years in the major leagues with the Texas Rangers and the Mets. At a press conference before the start of the season he said he hopes to be in uniform until he’s 70 but whether that’s in Japan or the United States is anyone’s guess.

This is Valentine’s second stint as manager of the Marines. He led the team to a second-place finish in 1995 but was let go at the end of the season by then general manager Tatsuro Hirooka over what was described at the time as a “difference of opinion.”