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Resentment of Valentine's power factored in downfall

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Resentment of Valentine's power factored in downfall

by Robert Whiting (Jan 31, 2010)

There are many reasons why Bobby Valentine lost favor with the Chiba Lotte Marines organization.

It wasn't just his prohibitive salary ($5 million per year). In contrast to the foreign media covering Valentine in Japan, who liked to portray Valentine as a victim of heartless corporate executives, Japanese reporters were becoming increasingly unsympathetic as they learned more of what had gone on behind the scenes.

Some critics claimed that Valentine's easygoing American approach and lack of discipline had backfired and was destroying the wa (group harmony). And there was a growing feeling that it was not Valentine's baseball strategy that had helped the Marines win in 2005, but rather the fact that the players had simply played over their heads.

As Japan's leading sports writer Masayuki Tamaki put it, "Most people think Katsuya Nomura (former Rakuten manager) and Hiromitsu Ochiai (Chunichi Dragons) are better managers."

The Jiji Press had reported criticism by some Lotte players who expressed a desire that Valentine concentrate completely on games, as opposed to focusing on his outside interests, such as his lectures at Japanese universities and other venues, his endorsements and a music video he made in which he channeled John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever."

The Yukan Fuji claimed that some players were upset that after the Marines' 2005 championship, when Valentine got his huge $20 million contract, "that there was not much left for them."

Still others thought the Valentine cult of personality inappropriate given the disconnect between the team's winning percentage and the manager's inflated salary.

Prize-winning Japanese author Toru Takagi, who directed two documentaries about Valentine for NHK and wrote a book about the experience, had praise for Valentine's skill in molding young players, but noted that Valentine's "need to constantly be the center of attention, to self-flatter, is a cause for concern. It makes it difficult for him to demonstrate his good side."

By 2008, he remarked: "Mr. Valentine's 'use-by' date has expired."

Although Valentine's critics used Lotte's failure to win another championship against him, the fact of the matter is that with a little luck he could have added a second or even a third flag.

In 2007, the Marines barely missed going to the Japan Series, losing to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the fifth and final game of the Pacific League Climax Series playoffs, in rebounding from a dismal season the year before when they finished with a losing record.

And although they struggled to stay in contention for most of the 2008 season, finishing in fourth place, they were only 1 1/2 games out of second place and just 4 1/2 games out of first.

Some observers thought it all came down to a case of gaijin fatigue. After all, they said, six years is a long time for one man to be manager of a team, especially when said manager is by far the highest paid, a foreigner and surrounded by so many foreign faces or Japanese who acted foreign, or gaijin kusai as the pejorative expression goes.

* * * * *

One very important factor was Valentine's souring relationship with team president Ryuzo Setoyama, an executive imported from Fukuoka where he had been managing director of the Daiei Hawks, who found himself marginalized while Valentine and his crew basked in the glow of the Marines' 2005 success.

Setoyama was a "salaryman," a baseball executive who had never played professional baseball.

After graduating from Osaka Shiritsu University in 1977, he had joined the Daiei Corporation, a gigantic supermarket chain and retail conglomerate that had expanded rapidly in bubble era Japan with the help, it was reported, of real estate jiageya and other underworld connections.

Setoyama had started out in the meat department of a Daiei supermarket branch in Osaka and worked his way up the ladder, catching the eye of Daiei owner and founder Isao Nakauchi in the process.

In 1988, when the Daiei purchased the Pacific League franchise, the Nankai Hawks of Osaka, Setoyama was tapped to organize the relocation of the team to Fukuoka.

Setoyama was usually described as a likable, friendly, easygoing sort - a "nice oji-san" (uncle) is the way one NHK producer put it.

He was respected throughout the NPB for his workmanlike business abilities and was singled out by then-NPB commissioner Ichiro Yoshikuni as an executive to be emulated for his skill in organizing the Hawks' move to Fukuoka, which entailed the construction of the Fukuoka Dome, the adjacent "Hawks Town" shopping mall and hotel, as well as the purchase of the land on which it all stood.

Although the Hawks finished in the second division during the first eight years in Kyushu, the team regularly drew over two million fans a season, an impressive figure for a small market team. The Hawks also enjoyed the third-highest TV revenue after the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers.

However, Setoyama was not particularly liked among Fukuokans for the cost-cutting measures he employed while running the team. Fans were particularly angry in 1995 when he released a popular first baseman named Kazunori Yamamoto in a money-saving move.

In 1996, with the team in last place, Setoyama appeared on a Fukuoka talk show with the topic of discussion, "How To Improve The Hawks." One of the panelists suggested sarcastically the best way to accomplish that goal was for Setoyama to move back to Osaka.

During Setoyama's tenure, the Hawks gradually managed to turn things around. In 1995, former slugger Sadaharu Oh took over as manager, replacing Rikuo Nemoto, who moved up to assume the post of team president.

Setoyama's assistant, scout Akira Ishikawa, a former Hawks ballplayer of little note, successfully recruited a number of young amateur players who became stars and turned the franchise into a baseball powerhouse. They included strapping catcher Kenji Johjima, who would go on to play with the Seattle Mariners, second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, who would later play for the Chicago White Sox, and right-handed hurler Kazumi Saito, who for many years was, arguably, the best pitcher in all of Japanese baseball.

Ishikawa also recruited perennial All-Star infielders Hiroki Kokubo and Nobuhiko Matsunaka.

The Hawks accomplished the signings of these highly sought-after players by reportedly paying subsidies that exceeded the ¥100 million signing bonus limit set by the NPB. Although such payments were certainly questionable, it was a practice that was customary at the time until revised draft rules reduced the power of eligible draftees to choose their teams.

Many amateur managers demanded money for their schools before they would agree to steer their charges to one professional franchise over another.

In 1997, when the tax office charged Kokubo and others with tax evasion linked to the under-the-table payments, Setoyama resigned to take responsibility. But he was called back when Nemoto died in the middle of the 1999 season and remained long enough to take some of the credit for the two Japan championships and three pennants the Hawks won from 1999 to 2003.

Setoyama resigned in 2003, after losing an internal power struggle over business strategy with another Hawks executive, Takeshi Kozuka, and started his own firm in Fukuoka, where he worked until the call to duty came from the Shigemitsu family.

Setoyama's boss, Nakauchi, had long-standing ties to the elder Shigemitsu, an ethnic Korean who had been born in Japan, and had forged strong business relationships with the zainichi kankoku-jin community in Japan. Nakauchi and Shigemitsu also established joint business ventures in South Korea in the 1970s and '80s.

The two men were, in fact, planning a merger of the Lotte and Daiei baseball teams as part of an overall Nippon Professional Baseball plan to contract from 12 to eight teams and in March 2004, and had picked Setoyama to oversee it.

The planned contraction fell through, however, thanks in part to a player strike, but Setoyama stayed on in the Lotte front office with the newly arrived manager Valentine's blessing and from the fall of 2004 occupied the post of general manager, which, unfortunately, did not leave him with a lot to do, since Valentine, for all intents and purposes, was already functioning as his own GM.

Setoyama, who did not know very much about the team, was relegated to rubber stamping Valentine's to-do list - a GM in name only.

Setoyama was further handicapped by his inability to speak English and also by the fact that he did not know how to use the Internet and e-mail, tools that Valentine and Shigeo Araki, the business operations manager, employed nearly all their waking hours.

Moreover, Setoyama was old school, accustomed to long discussions with subordinates, taking his time mulling decisions, while Valentine and Araki simply figured out the right thing to do and with a minimum of talk and cursory notification upstairs, took the ball and ran with it.

As indicated previously, it was Valentine who had taken the lead in getting the operating rights to Chiba Marine Stadium from the Chiba governor, a job that normally the president of the team should have undertaken.

It was an awkward situation. The president of the team was supposed to have been the field manager's boss, but at Lotte, the tail was wagging the dog.

The toxic backbiting that went on in the Lotte organization did not help. Within the Valentine faction one could hear comments about Setoyama's general uselessness, as in, "I can't figure out what he does" and "Setoyama is a nice guy but he doesn't seem to be the smartest guy in the world."

* * * * *

There had been a brief dustup in 2006, when Valentine had been forced to make a bizarre public apology. He publicly charged that NPB team representatives were still making under-the-table payments to hot amateur prospects, despite their vow to cease doing so.

That remark created such an uproar among executives on other NPB teams, that Valentine was ordered by Shigemitsu to apologize before reporters.

Appearing before the media in Sendai with Setoyama, Valentine said, "My remarks were not based on accurate information. I apologize if I offended anyone."

Sports dailies ran a comical photo of the Lotte team president bowing deeply, sincerely, beside Valentine who, instead of bowing himself, stood head up, his arms folded, a defiant expression on his face.

(But in March 2007, Valentine was vindicated when a Seibu Lions executive admitted that the team had still been making secret payments to a high school star to prevent him from signing with another pro team. However, the new draft rules forbidding reverse designation of teams by draftees seemed to have greatly diminished the need for such bribes.)

Valentine had been particularly unhappy that Setoyama had volunteered the services of seven of Lotte's top players to join Team Japan for the 2006 World Baseball Classic, including four of the team's best pitchers.

Valentine claimed that the absence of so many of his key players had prevented the team from preparing properly in spring training for the '06 season and was the primary reason the club finished in the second division that year, 16 1/2 games out of first place.

Setoyama's hole card was his power over the budget. From the time Setoyama took over as president, Lotte headquarters complained constantly that the $30 million to $40 million annual deficit was too much and kept asking for Setoyama to make budget cuts.

One of the budget items Setoyama consequently eliminated was so-called "fight money" (cash prizes paid to the best players in each game), reportedly explaining to Valentine and his subordinates that the money was needed to build a new indoor practice facility for the team, a project that did not show any signs of being constructed.

Valentine, who had a long personal history of loaning money to friends and acquaintances in need and of contributing to charities, reacted to the cuts by continuing to make the fight money payments out of his own pocket.

He also gave financial assistance to other staff members whose benefits had been similarly cropped.

Valentine had assumed it was just a matter of time before the various improvements he had overseen in the organization would begin reaping benefits and the Marines would turn a profit - even if it meant a few more years in the red. But that assumption had also pre-supposed an eventual increase in media revenue, which was nearly non-existent.

Valentine and Araki had helped to set up an iPod cast program involving PL teams, but his hope was that some sort of MLB-style integrated TV rights and revenue sharing system would be established involving all NPB teams, as was the case with the MLB. But the Japanese pro game had only two really big money-making organizations: the Central League's Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers, and they were loathe to share their wealth, as were the other four CL clubs who benefited from playing them.

* * * * *

Valentine was not averse to taking a substantial pay cut in order to stay with Lotte. That was how attached he had become to the fans and players. But, as previously noted, he was never given an opportunity to renegotiate a new contract extension downward, which, at that stage, was in Setoyama's power to offer.

And for that, perhaps, Valentine had himself to blame.

Consider, for example, the article which appeared in the popular American magazine Sports Illustrated, in November 2007, written by Chris Ballard, entitled "Bobby V's Super Terrific Happy Hour." In it, Ballard described Valentine as offering Setoyama's job to farm team manager Hide Koga, which was interpreted by some as a sign of disrespect on Valentine's part for the higher-ranked Lotte executive.

Valentine complained that he had been misunderstood, that he had only been offering Koga the GM post which Setoyama had recently vacated when he assumed the team presidency, to Koga. He sought to repair the damage by apologizing on his blog, Bobby's Way, and praising Setoyama for his "fine contributions to the team."

However, the incident begged the question of why Valentine assumed that he, and not the team president, had the power to offer the general manager's position to anyone in the first place.

Then, in April 2008, the documentary, "The Zen of Bobby V," was released. Instead of being a film about the Chiba Lotte Marines over the course of the 2007 season as the project was initially described to acting owner Akio Shigemitsu and Setoyama, it turned out to be a paean to Bobby Valentine depicting how much he was loved by Lotte fans.

In the final cut of the film, which ran 86 minutes, Setoyama, the team president, and a man who had specifically asked to be included, was nowhere to be seen. It was yet another painful embarrassment.

With the Marines struggling to play .500 ball during the first half of the 2008 season, Setoyama saw his chance. He complained the team needed revitalizing and suggested hiring Ishikawa, his former assistant at Daiei, to come and help out in a rebuilding effort.

Valentine was lukewarm to the idea. He replied he did not think it was a good idea to hire anyone in the middle of the season because it might distract the team. He said he didn't know very much about Ishikawa, except of course for the aforementioned Daiei scandal, and wanted to interview him before deciding.

Ishikawa was offended by the demand for an audition and announced he did not want the job. Setoyama was offended as well. He felt his authority usurped once more.

The situation came to a head in a July 20 meeting over dinner and drinks, involving Valentine, Setoyama, the Harvard grad Shun Kakazu and Araki. Setoyama suddenly announced he was going to quit. Lotte was a terrible organization, he said, and he was going to the Orix Buffaloes, who had made him an attractive offer.

He added that Valentine should consider resigning as well. Valentine responded by saying that he loved Lotte and that there was no reason for him to leave.

"If you think Lotte is bad, then you should leave," he said. "But I'm not like you. I can do without someone who has no desire to make us better. We can get by without you."

More words were exchanged and a drunken, screaming blowout ensued. Setoyama did not show up in the front office for a month.

But he was a long, long way from leaving the organization.

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