Wednesday, November 23, 2005

?Bobby Ball? shows Chiba?s Marines how to win

Marc Oliver visits champion manager Bobby Valentine in Japan

Express Staff Writer

Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine (center) and his good friend Marc Oliver of Ketchum (right) give the well-known-in-Japan "Bobby" thumbs-up "We're #1" sign during Oliver's Nov. 8-15 trip to Tokyo. Courtesy photo

Ketchum's Marc Oliver, then a strapping 24 years old, was a taxicab driver behind the wheel of his impressive big gold Cadillac in Hawaii back in 1969 when he took a phone call from a customer at the airport.

Oliver thought he was picking up one person and that it was just a routine yet stylish stop along the highway to more fun times for a young surfer dude. He was right, but he got more than he bargained for.

That's because it seemed like the entire roster of the Triple A Spokane Indians minor league baseball team piled into the Oliver's Cadillac, like the Marx Brothers admitting the wait staff to the tiny stateroom, and it started another phase in the vivid life of Marc Oliver.

Bobby Valentine, Tom Paciorek, Steve Garvey and Bill Buckner. They were unknown ballplayers out for a good time. But they all bled Los Angeles Dodgers blue and became the foundation of the Tommy Lasorda-managed Bums who played and lost three World Series during the 1970s.

Thirty-six years later, Oliver, 60, has cultivated the friends he made on that fateful stop in Dodger Blue Hawaii.

One particularly close friend has been Bobby Valentine, a great athletic talent who was the first-round Dodgers draft pick in 1968 and the Triple A Most Valuable Player for Spokane in 1970 before embarking on a less-eventful 10-year major league career for five teams.

About Valentine, Oliver said, "I've watched his entire career as a player and a manager. Really, I can't imagine my life without him. We've had so much fun over the years."

In this country Valentine is remembered best not for his lifetime .260 batting average, but as a major league baseball manager—eight years with Texas, only to be fired by then-Rangers owner George W. Bush in 1992—then seven more years with the New York Mets highlighted by back-to-back 90-win seasons in 1999 and 2000 and the World Series "Subway Series" loss to the New York Yankees in 2000.

Combative, talkative, unconventional, certainly a star of the New York media circus, Valentine has always been a good show, whether he's donning a moustache to return to the dugout after being ejected from the game, or wrestling with a player, or using praise and psychology to motivate one of his underachieving players.

But Japan is a long way from Stamford, Ct., where the 55-year-old Valentine grew up as a baseball and football star good enough to be recruited on the gridiron by the University of Southern California.

And Japan was a long way for Marc and his lovely wife Myrna Oliver to travel Nov. 8-15. "Never been to Japan before," said Marc, who first came to Ketchum in the fall of 1970 and has mainly worked as a drywall subcontractor here for 30-plus years.

Using the gift of a couple of airline tickets from their friend Bobby Valentine, the Olivers went to watch what the Japanese call "Bobby's Magic" in the first-ever Konami Cup Asian Series at the Tokyo Dome.

What they witnessed was amazing hero worship, Japanese baseball fans literally falling over each other to take photos of Bobby Valentine on their cellphones.

Oliver said, "He's a big star. They cover their mouths when he comes down the street. They want to touch him. They want to touch his upraised thumb. There's a statue of him. He's a monster hero."

It's all because of one incredible baseball season that ended in October with Valentine's Chiba Lotte Marines winning their first Japan Series in 31 years with a four-game sweep over the Hanshin Tigers.

Valentine, finishing the second year of a three-year $6.4 million contract to manage the Marines, became the first foreign-born manager to win the Japan Series since the Japan Professional League was established back in 1936, nearly 70 years ago.

But the man who once managed Nolan Ryan, Ruben Sierra and Ivan Rodriquez didn't do it with a powerhouse like the New York Yankees. He achieved the near-impossible feat with a much-maligned Chiba Lotte Marines squad that had posted losing seasons in 17 of the past 20 years.

"He took a team to the championship that was a perpetual cellar dweller, more like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays," said Oliver.

Chiba Lotte ripped off one of the best seasons in club history, which dates back to the birth of the Japan's Pacific League in 1950 when they were known as the Mainichi Orions. The Marines went through the season with an 84-49-3 record.

They handled the Seibu Lions 3-1 and 2-1 in the best-of-three first round of the Pacific League playoffs, then the Marines battled the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the second-stage Pacific League playoffs. And it was a lordly Japanese battle, all five games settled by just one run.

Sadaharu Oh's Hawks had won the Pacific regular-season title over the second-place Marines, but Chiba Lotte took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five set. The 1999 and 2003 Japan Series champ Softbank Hawks evened the score 2-2. In the decider Chiba Lotte rallied from a 2-1 deficit to beat Softbank 3-2 on a two-run go-ahead double by Tomoya Satozaki.

Somewhat anti-climactic, the best-of-seven Japan Series final between Chiba Lotte and the Central League champion Hanshin Tigers turned into a Marines lopsided sweep by scores of 10-1, 10-0, 10-1 and 3-2.

Keep in mind that Chiba Lotte games seldom drew crowds before Valentine arrived for his second stint with the team in 2004. The stadium, 30 minutes southeast of Tokyo along the waterfront, has frequent cold bay winds in the spring. Outfield walls are deep and it's one of the toughest places in Japan to hit a homer.

They used to say Chiba Marine Stadium is a great place to visit if you hate crowds. You wonder why the Korean confectionery company Lotte bought the team in 1969. Indeed, the first of this year's Japan Series games was called because of fog—the first fog-out Valentine said he had ever seen.

Oliver said, "You know, Bobby told me he did two things that were very important for the team in spring training this year.

"First of all, when the team was warming up and stretching in spring training, he gave all the players earphones. For 45 minutes they were attached to the earphones and all they were supposed to do was think. Nothing else to do. Then Bobby said he wanted the players to come and tell him what they were thinking about. It got their minds going. One by one they came to him. Some players would tell him they were thinking about getting the game-winning RBI. Bobby wanted them to think positive thoughts, not negative ones.

"This was all brand new to Japanese baseball. Even the other coaches didn't know what he was doing.

Basically, what Valentine tried to do with a ball club that had been the standing joke of Japanese baseball was encourage the players to practice better and avoid fearing failure.

"The other thing he did was on the day of the first home game, a big crowd showed up, and Bobby walked to the mound wearing a huge jersey with a #26 on it. He told the crowd that in the past the Marines had only 25 men on the team, but the crowd was going to make it 26 this year—and he was retiring the number.

"They had sellouts all year. Many of the fans rode their bikes to the park. They wore white home jerseys and carried towels worn around their necks. They stood in unison and sang songs that were memorized by everyone. They didn't sit down until the third outs were made. And the vertical jumps were their specialty."

What Marine fans did was celebrate with their signature "tatenori," vertical movement, sort of like a bunch of people going up and down on pogo sticks, according to someone who saw it, Los Angeles Times writer Bruce Wallace. Added Oliver, "They jump straight up and down."

When the playoffs rolled around, Chiba fans camped outside the stadium in a giant tent city, waiting for tickets and the best vantage points.

Oliver said, "Bobby has done a lot for Japanese baseball."

Indeed, the juggling manager who used no fewer than 128 batting lineups this season and emphasized having fun on the baseball field was chosen just last Wednesday as recipient of the Golden Spirit award for his positive contribution to Japanese society.

Just recently they named a beer for Bobby. Sapporo Industries came out with BoBeer, a lager available only in Chiba that features a cartoon likeness of Valentine giving his familiar thumbs-up and saying "We're #1!"

Oliver found himself enjoying the Japanese culture.

He said, "It's so culturally different and unique. I have an enormous amount of new respect for it. I like the food. I like how the Japanese operate. The mass transit is excellent. They don't throw things on the ground. The waiter walks you to the street. There is no tipping. And I like the humility the people have toward each other."

The baseball players seem to treat each other with more respect than U.S. players, Oliver added.

He said, "There's no trash talk. They treat opponents with respect and dignity. You know, the first time Bobby managed Chiba was in 1995. The Japanese mindset is different and they never want to humiliate an opponent. Bobby is the type to be up three runs in the seventh inning and he'll be stealing. That's one reason he was fired—they felt he was too aggressive."

But Valentine is also the type who values loyalty above most everything else, and that's a strong Japanese trait as well. Oliver enjoys telling a story about Valentine's loyalty to a Japanese man back in 1978.

Oliver said, "Bobby was still playing baseball and a new Japanese sporting goods company, Mizuno, sent a man in a motor home to spring training. Major League Baseball wanted the man to stay out in the parking lot because of its ties to American companies. Of course Bobby didn't go along and he asked the Japanese man to make him a glove. He didn't like how Major League Baseball was treating him. So Bobby became the first American to have a Japanese glove."

Myrna and Mark traveled to Japan, not to see the triumphant Japan Series, but to watch the inaugural Konami Cup Asian Series, an event championed by Valentine that the innovative manager feels could very well be a precursor to a true "World Series."

Not surprisingly, the red-hot Marines won the Konami Cup in a four-game sweep—beating the Samsung Lions 6-2, the Sinon Bulls 12-1, the China Stars 3-1 and the Samsung Lions again 5-3. Most Valuable Player was Benny Agbayani, the bulky 33-year-old outfielder from Honolulu who played for Valentine's New York Mets from 1998-01.

"When it was all over and Chiba was on the field for their awards, the South Korean Samsung team was also out there, standing at attention during the ceremony," said Oliver. "They treat each other with respect."

Oliver added, "You know, that same man who made the glove for Bobby back in 1978 is now a vice president of Konami. He made Bobby a new glove and gave it to him. It was inscribed, 'To Bobby Valentine, thanks for believing in me.'"

Not only was Valentine full of Dodger Blue as a young man, he married the daughter of former Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, the reliever whose name is forever linked to Bobby Thomson of the 1951 New York Baseball Giants. Her name is Mary O'Malley Branca.

"Mary and Bobby own a huge home in Stamford and she shows dogs. Mary comes over to Japan for two weeks every other month during the season. Bobby is negotiating for more airline tickets in his new contract so maybe we'll go back to visit again someday," Oliver said.

Valentine, vowing he'll return to Chiba next season, is currently close to signing a new three-year extension with the Marines rumored to be worth $4 million a year plus incentives. Oliver thinks he'll stay in Japan, although at least three major league clubs have contacted him.

"He loves it there," said Oliver about the only manager to lead teams in both the World Series and Japan Series. "He's such a big star. We're lucky we had him relatively to ourselves during the Konami Cup, since the Japan Series was over."

Valentine probably won't return to Sun Valley for skiing any time soon, since he's been going to Kurt Russell's guest house at Aspen over the past 10 years—since Russell is the uncle of 36-year-old Marines utility man and ex-National League and New York Met Matt Franco.

But Valentine did tell ESPN when he was working as a television analyst three years ago that he needed two weeks off in the dog days of August to visit Idaho. "We took him down the Middle Fork two years ago. It's one thing he wrote into his contract with ESPN, coming here," said Oliver. "We had a ball."

It was another victory for "Bobby Ball."

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