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Softer Take on Hardball Pays Off in Japan
U.S. Manager's Style Yields Winning Team And Social Debate

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 28, 2005

TOKYO -- You can see it in the $13 six-packs of Bobby Valentine Beer being snapped up at Japanese ballparks. In the scores of magazines with Valentine's winsome mug on the cover. In the ticker-tape parade held last week, when 240,000 fans poured into the streets to toast him and the long-losing baseball team he just coached to its first Japan Series title in more than 30 years.

It's as clear as a game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth: Three years after being unceremoniously sacked by the New York Mets, Bobby is getting his valentine. Japan is showin' him the love.

"Oh, man, this is just a great feeling," he said with an aw-shucks grin. In his office after a tribute of Japanese dancing and drumming for Valentine and the Chiba Lotte Marines at their packed stadium in a blue-collar suburb of Tokyo, he quipped, "I'm just getting started."

In fact, Valentine's golden touch has already triggered something of a social earthquake in Japan -- mostly because his uncanny success with the Marines has been credited to his decidedly un-Japanese management style. The custom of bosses and teachers berating their charges in front of others for mistakes -- and sometimes doling out physical abuse -- is deeply ingrained in Japanese society. That is gradually changing, but excelling at work remains something that does not typically merit praise.

That is particularly true in Japanese baseball, where even pro coaches are known to strike rookies so hard their batting helmets break or to make them submit to often humiliating "mental training." This summer, a high school coach in western Japan repeatedly made his players run naked around the field during night practices to promote mental toughness.

But Valentine took the opposite approach, building players' self-esteem through gentler tactics and eventually turning a club with no noted sluggers into national champs. He changed lineups no less than 120 times -- far more than normal here -- in part to give all his players more chances at bat. He reprimanded them for errors only in private and lavished them with public praise after good games. He issued orders for all players to sign autographs at every game "to make them start believing in themselves, to help them discover the baseball star waiting to come out in each and every one of them," Valentine said. "And you know what? They did."

"He was such a different type of manager for us," said Marines pitcher Tomohiro Kuroki, 31. "He pulled out our hidden potential, made us confident in ourselves. And he taught me one word in English -- 'great!' "

The success of the "Bobby Way" is being hailed by many here as a home run for a growing movement to curb the Japanese tradition of harsh management. Hiroshi Miyata, president of Nippon Metal Industry Co., called on corporate Japan in a newspaper editorial last week to start "treating our employees in the same way that Bobby does." The current and former managers of three of Japan's top baseball teams offered rare praise for Valentine's methods, suggesting that the notion of severe training should be reexamined in the wake of the once-lowly Marines' victory.

This month, the Tokyo-based Macro Mill research company conducted a survey of Japanese job hunters, asking them to list their ideal boss. Valentine was the only foreigner in the top 10.

"Bobby is a role model for Japan," said Naoki Fujiya, a 36-year-old house painter who waited hours in line to catch a glimpse of Valentine and the Marines at last week's parade. Fujiya said his boss had hit him several times for making errors. "But I think we all see now that you can do your best even when you treat the people who work for you with respect," he said. "I wish Bobby was my boss."

Anger at harsh management tactics boiled into a national debate in April, following a West Japan Railway crash near Osaka in which 107 people died. The train's 23-year-old driver was believed to have been in a panic because he was running behind schedule, exceeding safe speed limits in an attempt to make up time.

Public outrage ensued after company employees began to speak out. A group of employees filed a lawsuit against the company this month in which one train driver said he was forced to undergo 71 days of "reeducation" -- including cleaning trains and writing essays reflecting on his mistake -- after overshooting a train platform by two yards. Another driver, who was subjected to reeducation after departing a station 50 seconds late, committed suicide during his ordeal.

Some have questioned whether the Japanese would perform successfully under alternative management methods. The 55-year-old Valentine, still muscular from daily workouts and with traces of gray in his dusty brown hair, put those arguments to rest this year.

Valentine, who played in the major leagues from 1969 to 1979 and later managed the Texas Rangers for nearly eight seasons, first coached the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995, leaving after one season because of disputes with the general manager. He took over the New York Mets in 1996 and led them to the World Series in 2000, where they lost to the Yankees in five games. After struggling with the Mets in 2002, Valentine was fired -- then quickly recruited to come back to Japan for the Marines' 2004 season.

He turned around a team that hadn't won the Japan Series since 1974 by changing the club culture to emphasize confidence-building. Outfielder Saburo Omura, for example, was once expected to be Japan's next great baseball star. But he never reached those heights and was batting at the bottom of the lineup when Valentine showed up. Valentine left him there for the 2004 season, but on Aug. 13 he suddenly moved the 29-year-old up to fourth -- the cleanup spot reserved for only the best players.

"I tried to take the pressure off him," Valentine said. "I told him, 'You're batting fourth today, and even if you strike out, you'll be back in third or fourth tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.' And you know what? He went out and hit a home run that first day."

After batting .256 in 2004, Omura had a stellar season this year, batting .313 and earning a Gold Glove award for his fielding.

Valentine also built confidence by connecting the team to its fans. He lowered the fence over the dugout then had a gate put in the fence so fans could mingle with players. He kept the windows of his office at the Chiba stadium open, often breaking away from paperwork to sign balls for young fans.

After Valentine took over, the Marines' attendance tripled -- to 1.3 million spectators this year. The team now enjoys the highest proportion of ticket sales among women and children in Japan's major leagues. "The tradition in Japanese baseball has been for coaches to stand aloof, arms folded, above the fray of the players and the fans," said Robert Whiting, author of "The Samurai Way of Baseball." "Bobby didn't do that. And he still took the team all the way."

Valentine still frets about how to keep Japanese players from following their successful peers into the American major leagues. He is leading by example. Courted in recent months by the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he has chosen instead to sign a new three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Marines.

"We've got great baseball, great players and great fans," Valentine said. "What more could I want?"

Special correspondent Taeko Kawamura contributed to this report.

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