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History, tradition helped to undermine Valentine

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History, tradition helped to undermine Valentine

by Robert Whiting (Feb 7, 2010)

It was not exactly clear what Chiba Lotte Marines president Ryuzo Setoyama's motives were, whether he was so frustrated that he really did intend to quit, or whether his threat to resign in 2008 was just a ploy to get skipper Bobby Valentine to leave and save the team some of Valentine's salary.

And there are indeed conflicting accounts as to whether Setoyama actually submitted his resignation or not to acting owner Akio Shigemitsu. However, Aera magazine reported that Setoyama sought out Shigemitsu on a trip to South Korea and China to deliver an ultimatum,"Choose me or him."

Shigemitsu, not usually described as a strong-willed person, was reluctant to let Setoyama go. He had respect for Setoyama's rirekisho (resume), which was, after all, the reason for bringing him to Chiba in the first place. And there was also a history involved.

Setoyama had been a Daiei man, and he was the protege of the Daiei founder and owner Isao Nakauchi (who had passed away in September 2005), a man with whom Lotte chairman Takeo Shigemitsu had a long professional and personal relationship. It was another consideration.

At the same time, Akio had also reportedly begun to revise his opinion of Valentine. Although he had indeed said Valentine could have the job of manager for life, a close associate said that the remark had been a light-hearted one - a spur-of-the-moment declaration - that was not necessarily engraved in stone.

Akio had reportedly not appreciated Valentine's boasts of his "lifetime status" to the American media. He was said to be annoyed over Valentine's "condescending" and "conceited" attitude.

After hearing of Setoyama's account of the explosive July dinner, Shigemitsu was quoted as saying, "I never heard of a field manager of a ballclub telling the president of the team he wasn't needed. It's highly unusual."

He did not even bother to get Valentine's version of events.

The upshot of it all was that Setoyama returned to the team in September, but relations with Valentine remained cool. Shortly thereafter, Valentine brought the tense relationship out in mid-September when he declared to reporters, "Someone is trying to get rid of me."

The remark forced Setoyama to publicly deny he was trying to dump Valentine and angered Shigemitsu, who was upset that Valentine had aired the team's dirty laundry in public.

According to the Sankei Shimbun, it was this remark, combined with Lotte's failure to make the playoffs, that sealed Valentine's fate.

"Had Valentine not disclosed the family feud," wrote Sayaka Kanda, a reporter who covered Lotte for that daily newspaper, "I tend to think the team would not have announced that his contract would not be extended."

In October, Setoyama went ahead and hired Akira Ishikawa who, over Valentine's opposition, immediately brought in his former Hawks signee Tadahito Iguchi, who had just been released by the San Diego Padres.

A team source said Iguchi will become the team's manager once his playing days are over.

It was Ishikawa who, in December, called on Valentine to return to Japan from the U.S., ostensibly to discuss a problem that had arisen over the recruitment of a ballplayer in South Korea, and then coldly informed him that 2009 would be his last year.

Valentine tried to appeal to Shigemitsu, Junior, as he was sometime called behind his back in Valentine's circle. But Shigemitsu was through listening.

"I tried to get some answers," Valentine said to the Sankei, "but I couldn't get him to talk to me."

Shigemitsu refused to return Valentine's telephone calls. Instead of replying to Valentine's e-mails, he passed them on to Setoyama's office.

"I guess when Shigemitsu was talking about a lifetime contract" sighed Valentine to the Sankei, "he meant the lifetime of a cat."

Shortly after the internal investigation report was completed and the elder Shigemitsu had made his decision that Valentine would have to go, Valentine announced his "resignation," superfluous though that move was.

Ever his own publicist, he handed out a statement to reporters that read, "I thought that it would be best for both the team and for the Shigemitsu family if I leave the club at the end of the season. I also felt that it would be best for me to make this announcement as soon as possible."

* * * * *

Trying to pinpoint blame for what happened at Lotte is like trying to solve Rubik's Cube, especially since so many of the people interviewed for this story wish to remain anonymous. But it is clear that some of it lies with Akio Shigemitsu, who set the stage for trouble when he agreed to give Valentine such a huge contract, one which angered Lotte and one which he himself began to feel uncomfortable about as time wore on, given the increased pressure to cut costs.

The easily led Shigemitsu might have been more proactive in his role as acting owner and not have allowed the Setoyama-Valentine problem to develop and fester as it did.

Moreover, without his OK, the Setoyama campaign against Valentine would not have been possible. His behavior is, reportedly, what caused his father to lose confidence in him and assign the top job at Lotte Japan to someone else.

However, Valentine also bears some responsibility, as well. Although Setoyama may not have had Valentine's talents in creating and running a modern razzle-dazzle MLB-type organization, there is a tradition in Japan that employees carry a weak or unqualified boss and let him share in the glory - like festival workers carrying a mikoshi to the local shrine.

Valentine should have been aware of that. As one former employee put it, "Akio might not be too bright, but Bobby is too bright - and he knows it. He always has to prove he is the smartest guy in the room and that was not a good recipe for group harmony at Lotte. It was a problem."

Also important was the long history between Lotte and Daiei, which had served to bring Setoyama into the fold, as well as the South Korean and ethnic minority business ties that permeated both organizations - although it wasn't widely advertised, many of the major actors in the drama at Chiba Marine Stadium were zainichi kankokujin. Someone should have pointed this out to Valentine, as well. It was a truly difficult situation.

But it was one that Valentine might have handled better with the proper advice from a better informed staff and a little more finesse.

Unfortunately, it appeared that Valentine's belief in his intellectual superiority and his untouchable position had caused him to exceed his limits and push Setoyama to the edge, in turn giving Setoyama the leverage he needed to get Valentine out of the organization.

Although he is unlikely to admit it, Setoyama was no doubt mortified at the small humiliations he had been forced to suffer during the Valentine administration and dreamed of turning the tables. Of course, there are those among Valentine supporters who suspect he had his own agenda from the start.

After all, they argue, he had a history of some success at Daiei and it would only be human nature to want to duplicate it with Lotte, rather than stand by and watch Valentine, Shigeo Araki and others eclipse him. But that is, of course, only speculation.

Also those who know Setoyama, Ishikawa and Yoko Yoneda well say they are not bad people taken individually, however, together, in the face of the opposition from the oendan (cheering section) and concern over their jobs, they became bad.

(Although some would argue that Yoneda was a case of arrested development.)

In their effort to ensure that the Marines did not win in Valentine's last year as a manager, they also destroyed all of the progress Lotte had made in the past five years.

They played a direct role in the 8.5 percent decrease in attendance and the loss of several million dollars in canceled corporate sponsorships Lotte suffered in 2009, too.

They played an unfortunate role in turning a franchise that was on its way to becoming an Asian sports jewel into one that is now just another lump of coal, a carbon copy of so many other NPB franchises that are nothing more than public relations toys for clueless parent company executives.

* * * * *

If there is a lesson to this tale, it is that change does not come easy in Japan. It is not easy to replace the old way with the new way. It is still necessary in this day and age to keep proper order and pay attention to wa.

Or, put another way by one of the many former and present Lotte employees who were interviewed for this article, but spoke only on the condition of anonymity, "The fact we still have such outdated people as Setoyama shows that Japan will not be able to catch up to other countries in the global society. As the world is moving forward, the team is moving backward."

At the end of the 2009 season, with Lotte having finished 18 1/2 games out of first place, Valentine said a tearful goodbye, reading a speech to the fans in halting Japanese, following a rain-soaked final home game. He was memorably gracious in praising and thanking the fans and the players for their support.

He refrained from making any criticism of the front office - primarily perhaps because of a clause in his contract that allowed the team to withhold any payments due him if he made negative comments about the organization.

It was a sad end to an endeavor that began with such promise. Valentine truly liked Japan and for a time it looked like he really would succeed in bridging the gap between East and West and turn Lotte into a real major league-type organization.

Valentine made it quite clear he wanted to stay in Japan and manage elsewhere. He declared that he would rather be in Japan than manage an MLB ballclub.

"My dream," he had said in an earlier interview, "is for the business of Japanese baseball to rise to the level where they can compete both on the field and off the field with other great leagues of the world and prevent what they call Major League Baseball from expanding into Asia and beyond. But I don't think that's going to happen as quickly as it should because of the lack of leadership here in Japan."

In that same interview, he also pointed to what he saw as "secrecy" in the Japanese culture, a tendency to "keep what they know to themselves," and added, "I think they would rather have outsiders remain outside."

Norifumi Nishimura, Valentine's bench coach, was appointed the new Lotte manager. He promptly vowed to have one-on-one conversations with the players to "understand their hearts," a remark that seemed to be a swipe at his former boss's inability to speak the language well, and promised to "restore the harmony of the team," seemingly another swipe at his old boss.

He made wa the team slogan for 2010. He also ordered a full-blown autumn training camp for the off-season. It was the first autumn camp Lotte held in seven years and was a pointed rebuke of Valentine's policy of postseason rest, a policy that was, of course, totally at odds with that of other NPB teams.

Said former team executive Larry Rocca, summing up the general feeling of the Valentine regime, "We thought it would be different for us compared to other gaijin who had come over and tried to change things and failed. But in the end, we were just like everybody else."

"The Zen of Bobby V," incidentally, was never shown in Japan.

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