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THE HOT CORNER: Playing catchup in New York

by Jim Allen (May 26, 2011)

There are times when one is in the right place at the right time. Two weeks ago, with three former Pacific League managers on hand, the New York area was the focal point of Japanese baseball's connections in the United States.

New York Mets manager Terry Collins skippered the Orix Buffaloes from 2007 to May 2008. Trey Hillman, the former skipper of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters was also in town as bench coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

To complete the trifecta, former Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, an analyst for ESPN, lives less than an hour from Manhattan.

Being in one place, more or less, presented a prime opportunity to catch up with all three. Although the location was uniquely American, the atmosphere was heavy with memories of Japan.

All three came to Japan expecting to make a difference. Unfortunately, Collins found it hard to function as he had hoped.

"When I left after the first season [2007], I asked for some things to be changed," he told The Hot Corner on May 7 at New York's Citi Field. "I didn't [go there] to fight the system."

Collins had managed two major league teams and had overseen the Dodgers' player development program before coming to Orix.

He wanted the Buffaloes' prospects to play every day. One day, he was perplexed to learn that young slugger Takahiro Okada had been benched on the farm team for striking out in a clutch situation.

"We've got to get some of these guys playing so that when they're 22 or 23, they're solid major league players," Collins said. "He [Okada] is 19-years-old, he's got to play every day, for heaven's sakes.

"I had a great time, a great experience. I just said I'm not the guy."

How long did it take him to say yes when the Mets asked him to manage?

"It didn't take long," he said. "It's a whole lot different than it was 20 years ago. I enjoy it more, I'm having a lot more fun."

Hillman, too, is having a blast--despite a painful ending to his tenure as Kansas City Royals manager last summer.

"When you are let go, you wish things had been better," he said of his first major league managing job. "I've told players for many years that you can't take the business side personal. When I knew I was getting fired and going through that myself, I had to keep telling myself, 'It's a business decision.'"

Although focused on his Dodgers duties, Hillman remains in touch with his sources here and is sensitive to the way Japanese ball is perceived in the U.S.

"I think there's a higher level of respect," he said. "That really wasn't ingrained [even though] Ichiro [Suzuki] was here and [Hideo] Nomo was here before him and they have been great successes.

"[Currently] I think there is more respect and more of an appreciation from Western baseball for Japanese baseball."

Things indeed have come a long way since 1995, when Nomo began playing for the Dodgers and Valentine first managed in Chiba.

A few years later, when managing the Mets, Valentine loved to assert that Ichiro, then still with Orix, was one of the best players in the world. It was an opinion few laughed at after Suzuki was named the 2001 American League MVP and Rookie of the Year.

Valentine, who returned to lead Lotte from 2004-2009, now works twice a week for ESPN and five days as the director of public safety for his hometown of Stamford, Conn. In that capacity, he's recently spent untold hours brokering a tricky agreement between Stamford's regular and volunteer firefighters.

"Two days a week on the field is plenty," he said.

Valentine first went to Japan to change a team and build the game, and he succeeded to an amazing degree. Yet, in the end, he himself was transformed.

His connection with Japan was the subject of a wonderful video tribute on May 11, when over 400 turned out to honor him as Stamford's 2010 citizen of the year.

Afterward, Valentine counted his blessings: his family, teachers, community, his opportunities to teach, to work in Japan, to contribute and help others.

"I am a lucky guy," he said.


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