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THE HOT CORNER: Strange summer in Chiba

by Jim Allen (Jun 25, 2009)

It's too weird when people are asking in June if a successful active manager will be running a different outfit the following season, but that's how it's been with the Chiba Lotte Marines this year.

Because the team made it clear last December that Bobby Valentine would not return as manager in 2010--no matter what--articles are popping up about his being a candidate to manage this team or that. The Washington Nationals and the New York Mets have been mentioned, as have the Central League cellar-dwelling BayStars--a move that would make sense if Yokohama's owner is willing to support a major franchise upgrade.

Even more than his dugout acumen, Valentine's organizational energy has helped make the Marines a lucrative brand. He hired creative, motivated people, put together a plan and executed it.

The team has reached out to its fans, generated promotions and developed extensive sponsorship deals. Lotte purchased the operating rights to Chiba Marine Stadium and has invested heavily in the ballpark, something made possible because acting owner Akio Shigemitsu bought into Valentine's vision and funded the team's transformation.

Since 2005, when teams stopped wildly exaggerating attendance claims and began reporting "approximate figures," Marines crowds have grown steadily.

Despite signing no free agents and having no real MVP candidates, the Marines have won more than their share since Valentine returned in 2004.

Still, team president Ryuzo Setoyama, who came to baseball as a star Daiei supermarket executive, has called for change. The skipper was summoned to Japan, relieved of his off-field responsibilities and told this season would be his last.

It was a shocker, but perhaps it shouldn't have been--given the history between Valentine and Setoyama.

Last summer, Valentine said a Marines executive had suggested on July 19 that he resign. Setoyama denied such a conversation ever occurred.

The he-said, he-said episode was reminiscent of a story in November 2005. After the Marines won the Japan Series, Valentine was being sought by the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Setoyama tried to quash such rumors by announcing Valentine was under contract through the 2006 season. The skipper, however, said he was still unsigned--something soon borne out when he reached an agreement with Shigemitsu on a contract starting from 2006.

Whatever was simmering behind the scenes boiled over last winter. A number of people loyal to Valentine were moved out of baseball operations, and the No. 2 spot in the front office was handed to Akira Ishikawa, who had worked for the Daiei Hawks when Setoyama was there.

Ishikawa was a former minor leaguer who graduated to baseball operations under front office wizard Rikuo Nemoto.

Nemoto was a man of many talents. He had the eye to spot talent a mile away, the patience to let it develop and an uncanny ability to acquire the best players available--despite a draft system that nominally prevented teams from luring amateurs with cash.

It would be natural for Setoyama and Ishikawa to try to recreate Hawks history in Chiba. Unfortunately, the kind of dealings Nemoto was famous for with both Seibu and Daiei run counter to Valentine's stated hopes for a more transparent baseball business in Japan.

Once Shigemitsu withdraw full support from the manager, Valentine and his guys could be removed from front office oversight and the coast cleared for a different approach in Makuhari.

Unfortunately, the move has been a public relations nightmare.

A group with a petition supporting Valentine presented its collection of 112,493 John Hancocks to the club's parent company last week. In response, Sports Nippon claimed a "large number of fans are opposed to Valentine staying on," but the ranks of that group, if it exists, have been remarkably silent on the subject.

Despite Lotte's insistence that fan votes don't count, Valentine doesn't yet believe the game's over in Chiba.

"When you give up five in the first, I never think that game's over until that 27th out," he said. "So I'm not commenting on this game."


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