Late Tuesday night, after managing his final home game with the Chiba Lotte Marines, an emotional Bobby Valentine sat in his office and tried to put a difficult season in perspective.
"I'm not sure that I have words to describe how I feel and the appreciation I have in my heart for everyone who made this six-year dream of mine possible," Valentine said after his club's 5-2 victory over the Rakuten Eagles at Chiba Marine Stadium.
While Valentine acknowledged that this has been an extremely tough year, he decided to take the high road. Instead of lashing out at the club's front office for ushering him out the door, the 59-year-old former MLB skipper kept it positive.
Prior to the season, team president Ryuzo Setoyama announced that Valentine would not be back with the club in 2010, prompting season-long protests from irate fans. Valentine, who started his second stint at the helm of the club in 2004, saw his popularity soar in Chiba when he led the team to the Japan Series title in 2005. While Bobby V's stock seems to have tumbled with the front office in subsequent years, his love affair with the passionate Marines fans has remained firmly intact.
That Valentine's popularity with the fans has never wavered was evidenced by a full house sitting through nine innings of a largely meaningless game--for the fifth-place Marines, at least--and a lengthy farewell ceremony for the beloved skipper, all in a steady downpour.
"I can never thank the players enough, I can never thank the fans enough for giving me the opportunity of feeling like a very special person," Valentine said. "I believe that the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time and the last six years I found the secret, and the secret is to be around great people who have love in their heart and commitment to what they do.
"I know that the Japanese people feel the (baseball) field is sacred, and every step I took tonight I felt that I was in heaven."
But Valentine also said he had to go through a little hell to get to heaven. The Marines' 2009 season was marked by an acrimonious split between those loyal to Setoyama and those in the Valentine camp.
"This has been my least enjoyable year of managing," Valentine admitted. "The thing that I pride myself on and treasure the most in a baseball season is an organization, a team that comes together as the year progresses, and I think it was regretful (that didn't happen). It's obviously my fault because I was the manager. We did not come together this year."
But on this night, at least, there was one last opportunity for the Chiba faithful to let management know where they stood. Chants of "Bobby" rang out and signs of support for the outgoing skipper were evident throughout the stadium.
Valentine's "sayonara" victory in Chiba was made that much more special by the way it came about. Toshiaki Imae, one of the heroes of that 2005 championship season, drove in the winning run with an eighth-inning RBI double and veteran Satoru Komiyama retired pinch-hitter Fernando Seguignol on one pitch in the ninth to pick up the save. The 44-year-old Komiyama, who also played for Valentine when he managed the New York Mets in 2002, became the oldest pitcher in Japan to earn a save. The 18-year veteran announced earlier this season that he would be retiring at season's end and he was also honored in the postgame ceremony.
"If I could have written that script it would have been with Imae getting the game-winning hit and Komiyama getting the last out and the save," said Valentine.
While Valentine didn't write the script, he did pen a poem, which he read during an on-field ceremony shortly after the game. As many fans wiped away tears, Valentine told them that their love would always live in his heart and that he would never forget them, adding later "I truly believe they're special--there's nothing that I've ever experienced like the fans of the Chiba Lotte Marines."
Valentine will next step back into the TV studio to analyze the MLB playoffs for his former employer ESPN. He has also been mentioned as a candidate for several MLB managerial openings in 2010, including the Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins.