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Rob Smaal

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Marines win it for the skipper

by Rob Smaal (Oct 7, 2009)

On an emotional night in a game that felt like part celebration, part funeral, the Marines scored three runs in the eighth inning for a 5-2 victory over the Rakuten Eagles on Tuesday in Bobby Valentine's final home game as the Chiba Lotte manager.

The Marines wrap up their season tonight in Sendai with another game against the Eagles, who began the day in second place in the Pacific League, a game-and-a-half in front of Softbank and four games behind the front-running Nippon-Ham Fighters.

The Rakuten loss means the Nippon-Ham Fighters clinched the 2009 Pacific League pennant for the first time in two years.

It was their fifth PL title, following 1962, 1981, 2006 and 2007.

Valentine's Marines are destined for a fifth-place finish in his seventh year at the helm, but the team gave the fans what they came to see on Tuesday.

Toshiaki Imae's RBI double broke a 2-2 tie and Tomoya Satozaki's two-run triple later in the inning made it a 5-2 game as the Marines upped their record to 62-76-5.

This game, played before nearly 30,000 fans in a steady drizzle, marked the end of an era in Chiba. Valentine, a former Texas Rangers and New York Mets manager, had become extremely popular with Marines fans after leading the club to a Japan Series title in 2005. Before this season even began, however, Valentine was told by the front office that his services would not be retained in 2010, effectively making him a lame-duck manager.

Valentine is in his second stint with the team after managing the club in 1995 for a season before being rehired in 2004. Like his first go-round with the club, his second stint at the helm also is ending in a messy divorce, with several policies instituted by club officials undermining Valentine's authority with the team.

Prior to Tuesday's game, Valentine handed out hundreds of signed cards to his legions of fans, which, in Japanese and English, thanked them "for making my stay in Chiba a wonderful experience."

Earlier in the afternoon, Valentine made his way outside to the main entrance of the stadium to check out a large placard reading "#2 Thanks Bobby! We Never Forget you!" The banner was signed by about 1,300 fans, bearing messages such as "No Bobby, No Life" and "Bobby Forever."

Among the more personal notes were one from Teru, who mentioned that "It was a special experience watching the team become strong--we appreciate you so much," and another from Eriko, which included the passage: "We Marines' fans will never forget you so don't forget us. We love you Bobby forever."

Valentine spent a few moments reading the messages and reflecting on them before snapping a few photos of the large sign with his cellphone camera.

One fan who received a signed thank-you card from Valentine pretty much summed up the feelings of a lot of Marines fans.

"We love Bobby very much," said 23-year-old college student Masaki Ishikawa, decked out in his Marines cap and jersey. "I feel very, very sad that he won't be managing the team next year."

Just before the game, Valentine received a happi coat bearing his name from the president of a Chiba bank and minutes before heading to the dugout, he got roped into an uncomfortable photo op when club president Ryuzo Setoyama approached him and shook Valentine's hand. Setoyama has been one of the main architects of Bobby V's demise in Chiba, announcing in the offseason that the popular skipper would not be back with the club for an eighth season. That move led to widespread protests by many of the team's hardcore fan base.

Valentine has signed on as a baseball analyst with ESPN, a job he also held before returning to Japan in 2004. He is due to start that job Oct. 16, analyzing the MLB playoffs and World Series.


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