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THE HOT CORNER: Final party can't cover ugly mess

by Jim Allen (Oct 8, 2009)

Bobby Valentine got his reward on Tuesday when for the last time, he got to thank the Chiba Lotte Marine fans following the final home game of the skipper's "least enjoyable season."

The ceremony was not the reward he longed for--a return to Chiba next season restored to his dual role as field manager and de facto general manager--but he settled for a rain-soaked love-fest after the Lotte's 5-2 victory over Rakuten.

"I could never thank the players enough, I could never thank the fans enough for making me feel like a very special person [for the last six years]," Valentine said afterward.

It was not his reward for six years of service, for two playoff appearances and a Japan Series title or for helping make the Marines a marquee franchise. Instead, Tuesday night was Valentine's consolation prize for keeping his mouth shut when the front office's only apparent goal was to antagonize him.

Last winter, Valentine was reminded of a clause in his contract stating he could be dismissed without pay for criticizing the team. From that point on, vice president Akira Ishikawa got in the skipper's face on a regular basis. An executive with another PL club confirmed that Ishikwa' s job in Chiba was to make Valentine's job miserable.

And if you have a manager like Valentine, who thrives on the idea that groups of individuals can combine to create unique and special results, you can really get under his skin by dividing his people.

"The thing I pride myself on and treasure the most in a baseball season is an organization and team that comes together as the season progresses," Valentine said.

With Valentine and his allies forced from the front office, the organization attacked its most vulnerable members, the support staff: the guys who watch endless hours of video, the guys who throw batting practice and the guys who catch in the bullpen.

In winter contract negotiations, they received a rude surprise.

"They told me they couldn't raise our pay because the team needed [money] to build a new indoor practice facility," one support guy told The Hot Corner.

The facility, promised for Opening Day 2009, is now being promised for the spring of 2010, although Valentine said last week he was unaware of any progress on it.

When Opening Day 2009 did come, the front office suspended its customary incentives to players and support staff after victories, causing further hardship among the guys who did the drudge work and needed the cash to buy groceries and pay mortgages.

"Twenty miserable guys. Those are the guys that build the team," Valentine said on June 10. "They want to contribute anyway. Now, they're half-committed, and I don't blame 'em."

In a season that saw the front office twice take the umpires' side when Valentine had pointed out critical umpiring errors, individual Marines didn't know whether they should stand by the lame-duck manager or the front office executives patently disinterested in winning.

"There's been a lot of distractions for the players, because I think they don't know which way they're going," Benny Agbayani said in May. "Are they on Bobby's side or the front office's side. There's one side's story, then another side's story. It's hard to play like that."

And the team didn't play at all.

Six weeks after Valentine said he would leave at season's end and concentrate on making the remainder of the season "fun," the Marines fell out of playoff contention and began to win. The comeback culminated Tuesday with his final win at Chiba Marine Stadium and a wet celebration with the fans.

For months, Valentine bit his tongue, perhaps hoping the fans' outrage at the front office would turn the tables on his tormenters. Had he fought back with righteous indignation at the club's petty but calculated efforts, it would have been game over, with no hope of a comeback or one final farewell with the fans.

It wasn't the Hollywood ending Valentine might have hoped for three months ago, but it will have to do.

"There's nothing I've ever experienced like the fans of the Chiba Lotte Marines," he said. "I never once wanted to take them for granted.

"And I think they understood that."


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