Tag Archives: Bobby Valentine

Takashi Kashiwada’s Story

Pitcher Takashi Kashiwada turned 48 on Thursday. In 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, the lefty went 4-2 with 1 save in 203 career games. More interestingly, he spent the 1997 season with the New York Mets, where he went 3-1 with a 1.69 WHIP in 35 games.

Takashi Kashiwada

There was nothing overly special about Kashiwada except that through the 1999 season, he was 1-4 over 80 games in Japan. His lone major league season was the result of Bobby Valentine making a point.

The experiment

Kashiwada went to the Mets because Valentine wanted to demonstrate that the talent level in Japan was much higher than people — even Japanese baseball people — believed. He wanted to show that even players who were not valued very highly here could contribute in the majors. To pull this off, he went to Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima and asked him for some surplus talent whom he had no expectations for in 1997.

“He suggested three guys, and I thought Kashiwada had the best chance, so we borrowed him for a year,” Valentine said a few years later. “I used him in situations where I thought he could succeed and he did well for us.”

Kashiwada returned to the shadows the following season, although between 1999 and 2000 he did pitch in 85-2/3 innings over 102 games for the Giants.

The story

But for years what I remembered about Kashiwada was that he won one game in Japan before going to MLB, where he won three. After being ignominiously fired from as manager of the Lotte Marines after a successful 1995 season, Valentine kept coming back to Japan in the offseason. On one of those trips, I mentioned to him, incorrectly that Kashiwada still had only one win in Japan but three in MLB.

When Valentine held a press conference after returning to Japan to manage the Marines for the 2004 season, he made a point of repeating the erroneous story I’d passed to him to make his point about the quality of Japanese talent. When I realized my error, I made a point of apologizing for making him look like a liar the next time we spoke.

“Don’t worry about it,” Valentine said. “It was a good story.”

Perspectives on arrogance

On Wednesday, Shogo Akiyama dropped a little teaser about what baseball beyond the reach of MLB means for the growth of the game as a whole on Wednesday when he was introduced by the Cincinnati Reds.

“…Japanese have a different perspective (on the game) from those players with major league experience, and I too want to study and learn from that,” he said.

His words could have been interpreted in a couple of different ways but by saying “I too” he implied the learning wasn’t one-way, as many people would have you believe it should be, since, Akiyama by virtue of playing in an inferior league brings no new knowledge to the table.

That way of thinking, which used to be fairly common among former major leaguers three decades ago in Japan went hand in hand with the old notion that all Japanese — by virtue of playing in inferior league — were incapable of success in the majors.

When Bobby Valentine first arrived in Japan to manage the 1995 Lotte Marines, many of those familiar with the major league style of play had high hopes for the team’s success. That belief was founded on the notion that Japan’s fondness for the sacrifice bunt was costing teams a large number of wins each season. By eschewing the less defensible uses of the bunt, Valentine would AUTOMATICALLY make the Marines five to ten wins better.

The Marines finished a surprising second that year, because Valentine was able to replace a couple of well-below-average performers with guys who were better than average, and the team responded positively to his new ways of doing things.

But the thought that major league methods were automatically superior to those practiced in Japan was just ignorant and arrogant. We have a better understanding of the costs and advantages of sacrifices than we did 25 years ago, and now know it’s a lot more complicated than it looks.

I’ve been there.

When you’re used to things being done a particular way, encountering a completely different method — especially one that inconveniences you simply by being hard to comprehend and get used to — it’s really easy to believe you are encountering an obsolete, inefficient practice. Sometimes, that perception is correct, and the unfamiliar methods really are less efficient. But often, there is more to the story than first meets the eye.

Because Japanese hitters and pitchers are trained differently, because they come from an alternative baseball universe, they offer alternative solutions that people rooted in their own way of doing things don’t see very easily. Change demands people who don’t believe the status quo is necessarily correct or for whom the status quo offers no future.

Babe Ruth changed baseball by proving one could hit enough home runs to make up for the additional fly outs and strikeouts that had led people to brand the home run as a failed tactic. When people try techniques that have been discarded only because they violate the status quo, that opens the door for evolution.

If Japanese ball had nothing to offer, players who failed to earn jobs in the major leagues would almost never find major league success after spending two or three years in Nippon Professional Baseball. But it happens.

One advantage of extended families in child rearing is a larger pool of adult role models for children, more chances an adult can bond with a youngster over shared dreams and inspire them. That’s the way I see baseball outside the reach of the majors. It’s not like every player is going to benefit from going abroad, but exposing players to different demands and ideas can teach or trigger adjustments they failed to make back home.

Three and a half years ago, Bill James wrote about the arrogance of people thinking major league teams had all the answers. Asked in September 2016 whether he thought big league clubs would allow Shohei Ohtani to both hit and pitch, he answered “Why wouldn’t they?

“You should be TOTALLY willing to say ‘We are going to accommodate this guy’s skills’ rather than ‘That’s not how we do things in the majors,'” he wrote on Sept. 9, 2016 in Bill James Online.

“When the Red Sox had Byung Hyun Kim, more than ten years ago, he had his own ways of doing things. He wanted to throw, and throw hard, every day, and he loved to do training…in Ft. Myers you would see him out running hard on the streets all hours of the day.”

“Our staff…kept trying to force him to do things the way we do them in the U.S.–and it didn’t work, at all. And then, when we had Daisuke Matsuzaka, we made exactly the same mistake: We kept trying to force him to do things OUR way, and it just didn’t work for him. KNOCK IT OFF. This is his way. Get used to it. None of us are that smart, that we have all of the answers.”

Ok, so Bill has since joined the Ohtani doubters, and there are lots of reasons to suppose being a two-way player might be counterproductive. But believing that also supposes you know more about what’s best for Shohei Ohtani than he does.

NPB under the table

The timing couldn’t have been worse — unless one ascribes to the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The Lotte Marines’ home interleague series with the Yomiuri Giants in early June 2006 coincided with a meeting of Lotte’s amateur scouts less than five months ahead of NPB’s amateur draft.

No more cheating

At the scouts meeting, Valentine wanted to make an amateur lefty, believed to be Kinki University’s Kenji Otonari, a target for the upcoming draft after seeing video of him. When told the player would cost more than Lotte could budget for, Valentine, who could not have been ignorant of the realities, said he asked why that was the case if signing bonuses as well as salaries and incentive packages for first year players were capped so that no new amateur signing could cost a team more than around $1.5 million. The answer was that the pitcher in question would likely cost an additional $5 million to sign because of systems in place since 2003 to allow elite corporate league and university players to choose the teams they wanted to sign with.

Valentine began an impromptu press conference earlier than usual in the home dugout at Chiba Marine Stadium. He explained his experience from the scouts’ conference, and reminded the reporters that NPB teams had taken a pledge in June 2005 to stop cheating. Because Japan’s most influential team was in town, the assembled crowd was about twice its normal size.

“If they had to take a pledge to stop cheating, doesn’t that imply that they were cheating before?” he asked the 20 or so reporters on hand to hear him vent.

If his team paid the maximum allowable on the lefty, Valentine asked, how could the pitcher be unattainable? His conclusion was that other clubs were breaking the rules.

There’s cheating and then there’s cheating

With the Giants entourage set to arrive shortly at the ballpark, a firestorm was set to explode. Hidetoshi Kiyotake, the Giants’ official proxy to NPB was on hand to blast Valentine’s assertion that gambling was going on at the casino – saying he had no proof anyone was “cheating.”

In one sense, Kiyotake was right, since Valentine was complaining about the under-the-table payments to drafted players, something that was not technically cheating — only because NPB’s agreement to limit signing bonuses had never been formalized as a rule in Japan’s pro baseball charter.

Valentine, too, had been right, however. When teams had vowed to stop payments in violation of the rules, they were referring to paying amateurs, a problem that had erupted in 2004.

In August of that year, Yomiuri Shimbun president and iconic blowhard Tsuneo Watanabe was forced to relinquish his role as Giants owner over the club’s payments to Meiji University pitcher Yasuhiro Ichiba came to light. On Aug. 13, 2004, the team announced it had paid Ichiba roughly 2 million yen ($18,000) in cash for “meal money, transportation expenses and pocket money” over a seven-month period. Two other clubs, the Yokohama BayStars and Hanshin Tigers, admitted to paying the pitcher 600,000 yen ($5,400) and 250,000 yen ($2,250), respectively.

The Giants having been caught red-handed, it was no surprise Kiyotake was particularly sensitive to the issue of “cheating” within NPB.

Valentine was forced by his team to issue an apology, something that frequently happens in Japan when enough influential people complain about someone telling inconvenient truths – an act often described as “causing confusion.”

Vindication, Part 1

But if the lords of NPB thought Valentine’s complaints were trouble, they were completely unprepared when the acting owner of the Seibu Lions decided baseball could regain the public trust by coming clean. Hidekazu Ota, revealed on March 9, 2007 that the team’s previous acting owner – longtime Lions executive Yoshio Hoshino – had informed him the team had been making payments to two amateur players, including roughly 13 million yen ($117,000) to Tokyo Gas lefty Yuta Kimura under the heading of “nutritional expenses.”

The Lions had been in turmoil since longtime owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, once described as the world’s wealthiest man, had quit suddenly in October 2004 prior to his indictment on securities fraud. Ota, who had long been involved in amateur baseball was determined to do the right thing and commissioned an outside panel of experts to discover past misdeeds so he could put the Lions’ house in order.

The Lions news spurred calls from amateur federations as well as the head of the players union, Shinya Miyamoto, to abolish the “kibowaku” system that allowed elite corporate league and university players to play for the team of their choice. The Giants stance, as presented by Kiyotake, was that abolishing the system would encourage Japan’s elite amateurs to skip NPB and sign directly with major league clubs. But within weeks of Ota’s bombshell, the system was history as NPB officially scrapped it.

In early April, the bad news continued as Ota’s investigators revealed the Lions had in the past paid out cash to amateur managers over a period spanning 27 years and that five additional amateurs had received a total of 61.6 million yen ($655,000) prior to the summer of 2005.

The report did not name the amateur players involved, but Lions manager Tsutomu Ito seemed to age rapidly that spring and summer. An elite high school catcher, Ito quit school in Kumamoto Prefecture and moved far from his home to attend night school in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, where he was kept out of sight during the day as a team employee until Seibu drafted him unopposed in the first round of the 1981 draft.

The Lions’ bold efforts to shed light on the dark recesses of NPB’s business practices were met with abuse and disdain. The Seibu investigators’ report suggested that the Lions practices were common in NPB, which brought out a chorus of denials from the usual suspects. The club was harshly criticized by commissioner Yasuchika Negoro, fined and prohibited from selecting players in the first four rounds of that autumn’s high school draft.

That spring, Valentine asked, “They made a big production out of my needing to apology. Don’t you think that given the circumstances, someone owes me one?”

Vindication, Part 2: Kiyotake’s turn

Although Valentine was forced out in a 2009 coup worthy of the movie “Major League,” Kiyotake proved once again what the statements of Yomiuri officials were worth.

After declaring the Giants squeaky clean and acting outrage that investigators suggested shady practices were routine in NPB, he made the mistake of challenging still-formidable former owner Watanabe in a power struggle and lost.

Soon after he was forced out of the Yomiuri organization, Yomiuri’s biggest newspaper rival, the Asahi Shimbun, began publishing details about payments in excess of the 100 million signing bonus limits agreed to by NPB teams for rookies.

The details, which were never denied by the Giants, said the team had paid a total of 3.6 billion yen ($32 million) in signing bonuses during a period when NPB clubs had agreed not to pay more than 100 million yen per player.

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.