Japan’s “Major League”

This is a collection of anecdotes that don’t explain but do give some context behind the Chiba Lotte Marines’ bizarre 2009 season.

The year an owner threw a season

With MLB teams all but locking out free agents in name of higher profits, much has been made of teams tanking to save money at the expense of winning. Joe Posnansky recently wrote how the antagonist of the movie “Major League,” Rachel Phelps, the fictitious owner of the Cleveland Indians, was a genius who was ahead of her time, by trying to lose games.

But it actually happened in Japan.

During the 2008 season, the acting owner of the Chiba Lotte Marines, Akio Shigemitsu, bought into the idea Bobby Valentine, who was under contract through the 2009 season for $5 million a year, could be driven out without being paid. The scheme was fiendish and simple. Valentine’s contract contained a clause stipulating that should he criticize the team’s management, he could be fired without compensation.

If the top executives could sabotage the season enough to make Valentine criticize the organization, he could be fired without cost and it would be mission accomplished.

The tale of Bobby Valentine

The plot, ostensibly hatched by former team executive Ryuzo Setoyama, had complicated roots that author Robert Whiting explains in some detail in a four-part 2010 series published in the Japan Times. Setoyama was technically Valentine’s boss, but after winning the Japan Series in 2005, it was clear how far out of the loop he was. Valentine was being wooed by at least one MLB team, rumored to be the Dodgers, who wanted him to manage in 2006.

Setoyama told the media Valentine couldn’t go anywhere since he was under contract — since that had been published in the papers when Valentine returned to Lotte for 2004. Setoyama did not know the truth.

Valentine was adored in Japan and wanted to stay, but said he had to deal with daily calls from his mentor, Tommy Lasorda.

“He’s saying, ‘What’s the matter with you, Bobby? You’re a big fish! You’re not going to be happy in a small pond,'” Valentine said during the 2005 Asian club championships when his future was fodder for daily speculation in Japan’s ubiquitous sports papers.

When told that Setoyama was holding court with reporters down the hall telling them Valentine, couldn’t leave if he wanted, Valentine said with a grin, “We’ll see.”

Feudal Japan

When Valentine was made defacto general manager, he got new insight into the ways of Japanese baseball. This included how the team was forced to accede to demands of a local organized crime group. Another sore spot was how the team’s autumn mini camp location was determined by the amount of money local leaders stuffed into envelopes at dinners where team officials were wined and dined during inspection trips.

By holding the mini camp at the team’s home park, Chiba Marine Stadium, the club saved a ton of money and was opposed by those who depended on the graft for income.

From his perspective, Japanese teams were being run like domains from Japan’s feudal era, where tax collectors bought their positions and pocketed the difference between the amount they could collect and the amount their lords demanded. One team official, Valentine said, had entertained guests in luxury boxes at team expense.

“He’s giving tours of the ballpark now,” Valentine said. “He used to vice president of drinking and fucking.'”

Valentine’s ridicule came from genuine outrage because he loved Japan. He admired Japan’s passion for baseball and the players and coaches’ dedication and wanted the business side to match that effort. The graft and scams grated on him and he was a fountain of ideas to reform the business–one of which, the expansion of minor league playing opportunities–has had a huge impact on Japan’s talent base.

To achieve his purposes, he and Setoyama established what Valentine thought was a productive partnership. As the team’s official representative on the Pacific League’s board of directors and the NPB executive committee, Setoyama could present reforms Valentine wanted discussed.

But in the middle of the 2008 season, Setoyama went on walk about.

It was not exactly clear what…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.

Robert Whiting

The first shoe dropped that winter, when Valentine was summoned back for an emergency conference. He’d reportedly spoken with the agent of a South Korean player, at the 2008 baseball winter meetings in the United States. Lotte to the press that Valentine had raised suspicions of tampering as the player in question was not a free agent.

“The meeting was a setup,” Valentine said. “I was tipped off by a phone call before I went in that the plan was to make me angry and maybe even take a swing at someone, so they could fire me.”

At the meeting, Valentine was told he was being stripped of his general manager duties, and that a number of his trusted subordinates were being reassigned within the organization.

Akira Ishikawa, who had worked with Setoyama with the powerhouse Hawks before Setoyama was fired, was brought in as a top executive–ostensibly so the Marines could sign Tadahito Iguchi. Ishikawa had signed Iguchi to his first pro contract and he had gone on to be one of the best Japanese players of his generation. But Iguchi had just turned 35, and had posted a .292 on-base percentage in 2008, when he suffered the first injury of his career.

The move was a surprise because Valentine was not involved and had already groomed a young second baseman, Shunichi Nemoto, to take over second. For the first time in his career, Valentine took a job away from a promising younger player to give it to a veteran past his prime. However, Iguchi exceeded expectations and Valentine, to his credit, gushed, “We knew he was a good player, but what we didn’t know was what a great teammate he is.”

But more surprises were in store.

After working on a play to lure opposing pitchers into balking a runner from third base home, the Marines successfully executed it early in the season only for the umpires to ignore the balk, and Valentine argued the balk with a fair amount of indignation.

The next day, Ishikawa went to the umpires room to apologize for Valentine’s behavior. A team staff member rushed in to the skipper’s office to inform him. Valentine excused himself and from the next room, only raised voices could be heard.

“What kind of shit is this?” Valentine asked when he returned and explained the situation. “What team executive sides with the umpires against his team’s interests?”

“They had the video playing. I demonstrated what the pitcher did. I said, ‘Is this a balk?’ They said it was. So why wasn’t it a balk last night? ‘Because.’ That’s what they said. ‘Because.'”

Gaslight

There’s no doubt the team was gaslighting their manager, trying to turn individual players against him and of sabotaging the team’s efforts by turning the players against him, criticizing him in the press and demoralizing the support staff of video analysts and batting practice pitchers by depriving them of an important source of income — the cash bonuses called “fight money” teams distribute after wins.

Valentine had made a point of including the analysts and batting practice pitchers and others in these payouts to recognize their contributions. Several of them confirmed that this practice was suspended by Ishikawa and Setoyama in 2009 because fight money was suspended.

Recognizing that the guys depended on the cash supplements to pay bills, Valentine began paying them out of pocket, which they also confirmed.

As the season wore on, Valentine didn’t know who was with him or against him, and every time he was criticized in the press, he was dogged after the game by two cub reporters brought in to record any complaints he might make about the team — that would result in immediate forfeiture of his pay.

In a weekend day game, banners in the stands urged Lotte ownership to keep Valentine and fire Setoyama. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, whom Valentine believed had been bought off by Setoyama and his gang to oppose him in the clubhouse, was selected by Ishikawa to give the on-fielder “hero interview.”

Nishioka launched into a speech about how the fans should be more positive to set a good example for the children in attendance.

Nobody in Japan had better tools than Nishioka, which Valentine freely admitted. He is an upbeat guy, who Matt Murton credited with lightning the stodgy atmosphere at the Hanshin Tigers in 2014 in their run to the Japan Series. But Nishioka is a guy, who despite his obvious ability, was only a great ballplayer at times, and Valentine ripped the shortstop’s hypocrisy over concern about the children.

“I was surprised he even knows children comes to the games, because he never sees them when they try to get his autograph,” Valentine said.

The team struggled to a .446 winning percentage, the Marines worst since 1994, the year before the first time Valentine had been hired to run Lotte and steered them in their dramatic 1995 pennant challenge.

Although the fans loved him, and the team executives decertified the most vocal of his support groups, he finally recognized nothing he could do would bring back the Marines he’d known from 2004 to 2008.

The aftermath

In 1995, Valentine was blamed for losing the pennant by then-general manager Tatsuro Hirooka and fired after one year despite the Marines posting their best record in 11 seasons. The following year, Shigemitsu fired Hirooka.

The 2010 aftermath was similar in some ways, although it took a year longer to play out. The 2010 season started with a hint about what was to come.

Longtime Tokyo sportswriter Wayne Graczyk informed other writers that something was amiss with Lotte in the spring of 2010. Graczyk purchased head shots of players for his annual media guide and fan handbook. When he asked how he should pay for the photos, he was directed to transfer the cash into a personal account of Setoyama’s.

The Marines finished third that year, qualifying for the playoffs by winning their last three regular season games and then climbing Japan’s rigged playoff system to knock off the second-place Seibu Lions and the league champion SoftBank Hawks before winning the Japan Series.

It was great for the fans, who had suffered through so much in 2009, but seeing the team tossing Shigemitsu in the “doage” celebration ceremony after he had signed off on a plan throw the 2009 season in order to save a fraction of Valentine’s $5 million salary was repugnant.

In the wake of their triumph, the Marines took a page out of their 1996 playbook and blamed Valentine for holding the team back. A reporter for the Nikkan Sports, wittingly or not, participated in the smear. He wrote that ending Valentine’s prohibition on “nagekomi” extra-long bullpen sessions, had given the Marines championship-caliber pitching.

This story was inaccurate and stupid on so many levels that it was laughable. Former Marines pitcher Satoru Komiyama said Valentine had not prohibited Japan’s beloved marathon bullpen sessions, but had restricted them to pitchers with sufficient core strength. The Marines pitching in 2010 was worse than it had been under Valentine, and a pitcher whose extensive spring training throwing was held up as an example of what was right with the new regime had missed most of the 2010 season with arm trouble.

The crash came in 2011. One hint that year was bringing in a foreign player whose past performance in the majors and minors made one wonder why the Marines would spend a dollar on him.

There are plentiful stories of foreign players with ostensibly little value who are offered more than their worth on the open market with Japanese team executives taking kickbacks to secure the deals. This had the markings of such a case, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what’s wishful thinking or stupidity and not plain corruption.

When the Marines finished last for the first time since 1998, and Ishikawa and Setoyama were handed their walking papers under suspicious circumstances, reportedly having to with unusual use of team funds.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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