POV: From your experience, what’s the biggest difference between baseball in Japan and baseball in the United States?
Bobby Valentine, in his second stint with the Chiba Lotte Marines, became the first man to manage in both the U.S. Major League World Series and the Japan Series.
Bobby Valentine: Kids from a very young age, as you’ll see in the documentary, take the game very seriously. They practice year-round. They are fundamentally sound. They like to advance runners any way possible. The bunt is employed an awful lot at the high school level — not as much at the professional level, though there’s more sacrificing at the professional level than there is in the States. Other than that, the game itself is really the same.
Outside the lines, the fans cheer for their teams in a very fanatical way, more like college basketball or football, where there’s synchronized cheering, pep songs, cheerleaders and bands — all participate in the game, rooting for their team in a very organized fashion.
POV: That’s something that really comes across in the film. Does that impact the players at all? Do they depend on the support of the fans in a different way?
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Bobby: I think that they are not fearful — the fans in Japan do not bring a negative aspect to the game. In the States, at times, fans can affect the team or a player negatively, especially when the home team isn’t doing well, or a player for the home team is having a tough day; the fans can often contribute to the negative environment. In Japan it’s a supportive, “we’re with you from beginning to end.” You’ll see in the high school tournament that the score can be 13-2 in the last inning and the fans are still singing their songs in total support of their team.
POV: So you’ve played — or your teams in the professional leagues have played — at Koshien Stadium, which is where the high school tournament takes place. Have you picked up on the significance of the high school tournament there in particular?
Bobby: It’s like heaven on earth for a baseball player, both in high school and the professional level. It’s sacred ground. It’s over 70 years old. Its ivy walls on the outside are reminiscent of Chicago Wrigley Field. When you’re in the dugout and on the field it gives a very special, almost sacred feeling for baseball.
When the Chiba Lotte Marines play, there are 55,000 people. Often for the end of the high school tournament, there are as many fans, so you have 15- to 17-year old players playing for 55,000 people in a place that they dream about playing from the first day they put on a baseball glove or uniform. I have players who play there for the first time at the professional level because their high school teams did not get there, and it’s different. It’s a different and very special environment for baseball players in Japan.
POV: You’ve served two stints managing the Marines, first in ’95 and now your current term. Was it different for you to go back?
Bobby: The second time around is always different, because nothing is new, and there aren’t as many surprises. This time around it was more of a work experience rather than a life experience. I think the first time here I was learning everything, from the training system to the language to the players’ names on the backs of the uniforms. Upon my return, I was more familiar with the surroundings, so I was able to get into the work environment a lot more easily.
POV: During that same period, several Japanese professionals have been able to find a great deal of success in the American leagues. Has Japanese baseball changed in the post-Ichiro era?
Bobby: It’s actually the post-Hideo Nomo era, I think. When I came here in ’95, Nomo went to the States, and he was the first pitcher to go — Ichiro being the first position player to go from this modern era — and with that, MLB telecasts have been broadcasted around the country on a daily basis. There have been many players who have gone to the MLB and brought back their experiences to share, so the game has developed here a lot quicker in the last 10 years than it did in the previous 10. But the game is played exactly the same now as when I was here the first time. There were some old, traditional ways of catching ground balls, swinging and even pitching that were taught by the old baseball era — of Americans, basically — who taught the game here in Japan. Those ways did not really evolve until the current players got to see games on television and share the experiences of their fellow players when they came back from the States. Now they use the backhand when they’re fielding instead of just getting in front of the ball, and those things have evolved in the States and evolved here as well. So the level of play is much different.
What must be understood when people are watching your program or thinking about Japanese baseball is that baseball is the number-one sport in Japan. You still see kids with their glove on the handlebars, going to school. You see kids playing pickup games in the parks every Saturday and Sunday. Fathers and sons play catch on a regular basis all around this country, and that’s something that they can be proud of.
POV: It’s often said that the focus in Japan is on the team, while the American game is more about individual achievement. Have you found that to be the case?
Bobby: I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. I think America has a more flamboyant way of having the individual express himself when in uniform. The game of baseball in Japan is still the pitcher against the hitter, the fielder against the ball, and the runner against the fielder. It’s the exact same game. It’s just the American style of play allows the individual to show off more, if you will, and be more flamboyant in his actions. But the game is no different.
POV: In your time in the States you were often described as outspoken. Do you approach the public-relations part of your job differently in Japan?
Bobby: Oh no, I’m outspoken here also. I try to say what I believe, no matter what side of the pond I’m on, or what uniform I’m wearing, and, you know, once in a while people listen.
POV: You’ve long been a supporter of substantial global baseball competition, such as last year when you issued a challenge to the winner of the World Series. Do you think that’s ever going to happen?
Bobby: Of course it’s going to happen someday. It’s regretful that what’s keeping it from happening is money and pride. I think that the baseball fans of the world don’t care about money, and pride is something that’s earned, not just given. I think that as the world becomes smaller, and the need for more growth in the game of baseball becomes obvious to the leadership on both sides of the pond, a true world series will be played.
Remember, this is something that’s been talked about for over 60 years. MLB in the ’40s challenged Japan to a world championship. Japan wasn’t ready to do it then, but they’re ready now, and it’s too bad that the same challenge isn’t being invoked by what they say here is the North American champion. There’s no reason in the world to call the winner of MLB the world champion. They only play in North America. When in 1903 they played the first World Series, the only professional league in the world was in North America, so they could lay claim to a world title. You no longer can do that without winning it outright. After all, the first global all-star tournament was won by Japan, here in the World Baseball Classic in 2006. I think some recognition should be given for that.
POV: Historically, competition between Japanese professional teams and American professional teams has been somewhat lopsided, with American teams mostly dominating the meetings. So how did Japan’s victory in the World Baseball Classic help diminish a national underdog feeling?
Bobby: The underdog has always been self-designated, if that makes any sense. Because the country is smaller, and the stature of many of the people is smaller, they like to keep thinking that they’re behind the bigger guys in North America. But they think, mentally — and deep down inside, many of the baseball players in Japan have felt this — that they are equal, if not better than, many of those who play in other parts of the world.
I think the WBC championship helped an awful lot. The MLB all-star teams have come here in the past decade, but that’s an all-star competition. What needs to be done is to have the best team here play the best team there, to see who’s the best — not the best country, not the best all-star team, but the best team that has played together for an entire season.
POV: So to return really briefly to the subject of the film, the Koshien tournament: If you were going to describe it in a sentence to someone who had no idea about it, to an American baseball fan, how would you do it?
I would try to tell them that the NCAA tries to get all of the basketball teams in the country to play in a tournament for one winner, and here they take all the high school teams in the country, twice a year, and put them into a very similar single-elimination tournament to declare a champion at the end. The excitement and national attention and the way the tournament builds to the final game are at least equal to that of the NCAA. It’s the Final Four, with the same passion and school loyalty as alumni have of Duke and UCLA and the underdogs that get into the tournament once in a while. When you get an underdog in the final four here that hasn’t been in the tournament in many years, their little town, their city, their prefecture, become reborn with excitement. It’s Texas high school football combined with the NCAA championship, as far as excitement and passion and commitment are concerned.
POV: So what do you think is next in terms of Japan-U.S. baseball relations?
Probably the closest “next” would be the viewing on television of games from Japan to America, particularly the playoffs and the Japan Series. That should happen right now. Our Japan Series should be on television so people could actually see the game being played and get to appreciate it for what it is, and not what they think it is. Steps after that have got to follow, where a true international competition between these two leagues is played. Not every league in the world has the infrastructure of the Japan League or MLB: a fan base, television, revenue and quality players. These are the only two leagues that have those components.
The world will eventually see that championship. I think the step after exposure on television would probably be some kind of meeting of the minds to figure out how to cut up the pot, to figure out what we would do with revenues that would be raised from such a tournament. I think the game should be played for charity. I think it should be played for baseball — just to get a winner — and get all the money and put it in the pot, and develop a worldwide charity fund for children so that we could foster the mind and homes of future major-league players around the world.
Bobby Valentine is the manager of the Japanese Pacific League’s Chiba Lotte Marines, a team he led to a Japan Series championship in 2005, their first in 31 years. He posts regularly to his blog, Bobby’s Way.