Come Back Home, Bobby V, All Is Forgiven

Subway Series. Hurrah. Fun time.

I have a feeling fans of both teams are greeting this annual Media Splooge-Fest with the same amount of (non)enthusiasm that Willy Wonka displayed when Augustus Gloop fell in the river of chocolate. (“Help. Police. Murder.”) Blame it on whatever you like–injury, malaise, bad weather, allergies, the bossa nova–but neither the Mets nor the Yankees are bringing their A-game on a daily basis. Hell, at this point I’d settle for somewhere between M and Q.

I’ll say this for the Yankees, though: they actually look like they might care about the game of baseball. They’re just not very good at it right now. And though they just lost 3 out of 4, they did so on the road to the amazingly hot Tampa Bay Rays.

Contrast that with the Mets, who just lost 3 out of 4 at home to a Washington Nationals team that, against every other team in the majors, looks like the Keystone Kops via the Special Olympics. And while dropping these games, the Mets looked as if they’d rather be doing anything else than be paid millions of dollars to play a kids’ game.

Witness the series finale, in which they made Jason Bergmann–fresh off the disabled list, owner of an ugly double-digit ERA–look like Walter effin’ Johnson. Mike Pelfrey had a surprisingly strong start, giving up just one run in 7+ innings of work–and lost. The Mets put the tying run into scoring position in the eighth and ninth innings, only to see it erased both times on boneheaded running plays that had to be seen to be believed. And even if you’d witnessed these Crimes Against Baseball as they happened, you wouldn’t be able to fathom how an adult who plays baseball for a living could do something so profoundly moronic.

And just to make sure that the team would go into their most scrutinized series of the year with the maximum amount of turmoil, Billy Wagner blew up over the ninja-like qualities of some of his teammates. Country Time can always be counted on to rush to the scene of a raging fire just in time to pour gasoline on it.

To try and distract myself from this state of affairs last night, I watched a documentary I’d DVR’ed: The Zen of Bobby V, wherein three NYU film students followed ex-Mets skipper Bobby Valentine over the 2007 season, his fourth managing the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Japanese major leagues (the NPB). This didn’t really help my mood, because the movie made me nostalgic for the late 1990s/early 2000s Mets, teams that were not as talented as the current crop but certainly played with more passion.

If nothing else, the film will give you a glimpse of the fascinating world that is Japanese baseball. The game is totally unlike the one experienced here. Not played here, because the sport itself is more or less the same. They swing the same kind of bats and throw the same kind of balls (though they have an unfortunate addiction to FieldTurf). But the fan experience is much, much different, more like European football than anything else.

The Japanese Baseball Experience means intense, massive audience participation. Fans chant and sing in unison, twirl umbrellas, unleash balloons at the seventh inning stretch, unfurl banners that run the length of an entire seating section, throw confetti to celebrate a big win. The fans are often coordinated by a ringmaster-slash-cheerleader. And because it’s Japan, many of these fans are dressed in ridiculous costumes, the kind you usually see on Ninja Warrior contestants who fall in the water on the first obstacle.

In Japan, a winning pitcher will be interviewed on the field over the stadium’s PA system immediately after the game so the fans can hear him talk about his victory. There are pep rallies before a game starts, where the players will poke fun at each other and lead the crowd in a singalong of the team’s fight song. When a team plays an away game, their fans descend en masse on the opposing team’s stadium, take over an entire section, and cheer just as crazily as they would at home (kinda like a less douchey Red Sox Nation).

The most mindblowing clip: with no score in the deciding game 3 of a playoff series, it looks like the Marines will fall behind to the Softbank Hawks when a batter bunts with the bases loaded, and the Marines’ catcher throw to first hits the runner in the back. But the umpire decides that the batter ran outside the basepath, blocking the catcher’s throw, so he is ruled out and no runs score.

The viewer knows this because the umpire addresses the entire crowd with a microphone hooked up to the PA system. Can you imagine American umpires doing this? No, you can’t, because they’re all so convinced of their utter infallibility that they would never address the Great Unwashed in the Stands.

Zen has a bit of a Lost in Translation vibe to it–specifically, the surreality of being an ex-pat isolated within a very different culture. But whereas Sophia Coppolla’s movie portrayed Bill Murray as having a lonely, isolated life, Zen shows Valentine as constantly swarmed by fans and well-wishers. He can’t go anywhere in Japan without being accosted (in a friendly way) by people who love him. Even when climbing up Mount Fuji. Seriously.

In Japan, Valentine is on TV so often, and endorses so many products, that not even he can escape himself. He has his own beer (Bobeer) and his own fast food hamburger. When he enters his apartment building, an advertisement with his gleaming grin greets him as he gets in the elevator. The same ad hangs on the wall just outside the elevator bank on his floor. One of his coaches lives on a street named Valentine Way.

He’s beloved in Japan for two reasons. First, he led the Marines to a national championship after they had been a laughingstock for over thirty years. Second, he is a tireless and sincere champion of Japanese baseball. The NPB has lost a huge amount of fans because of its best talent flocking to the U.S. By the end of the film, two of the Marines’ best pitchers bolt for the States. Revenue has dwindled. Teams have contracted. Even Valentine concedes that Japanese baseball could go the way of the Negro Leagues.

Yet for some insane reason Bobby Valentine has chosen this time in history to be Japanese baseball’s most enthusiastic cheerleader. Three years ago, when the Marines won their title, he publicly challenged the White Sox (who’d just won the World Series) to match up against his team for a true “world championship.” In Zen, he pitches an idea to the NPB for more minor league teams, for the purpose of providing more jobs to young athletes. The NPB–which is not known for being the most well-run sports league in the world–rejects the proposal. He proceeds to lambaste their shortsightedness to anyone who will listen.

But at least Japan has given Valentine the respect that he deserves. The man has had some hard luck when it comes to job opportunities. As a hot minor league prospect for the Dodgers in the early 1970s, he was seemingly destined for stardom until a leg injury derailed his career. He managed the Rangers for eight undistinguished years, mostly because the team’s front office didn’t know the first thing about putting together a baseball club. After being fired from the Texas job, he spent one year in Japan managing the Marines to a respectable record, until clashes with his general manager put him out of a job (despite protests and petitions from fans begging the team to keep him).

Then came the Mets years. In pure W/L terms, Valentine is easily the Mets’ most successful manager other than Davey Johnson (Gil Hodges, sadly, didn’t live long enough to manage for as long as either of them). And yet, he constantly seemed to be on the verge of getting fired, mostly because he constantly clashed with Professional Hair Helmet/GM Steve Phillips.

Theirs was a A Tale of Two Egos. In Valentine’s case, it was because he knew a lot about baseball and was more than happy to tell you so. In Phillips’ case, it was because he liked being the focus of attention in the New York Market, and anyone who distracted from that would not be tolerated.

In 1999, a slow start to the year put the Mets 2 games under .500 just before the Subway Series at Yankee Stadium, and Phillips felt the need to put Valentine on notice (sound familiar?). Two losses in the Bronx and suddenly his entire coaching staff was gone–with the obvious subtext being you’re next, buddy.

Under Valentine’s watch, the Mets managed to make the playoffs two years in a row, with a team that had one bona fide offensive superstar (Mike Piazza), one ace pitcher (Al Leiter), a good defensive infield, and an outfield and bench full of nobodies. When they made the World Series in 2000, their outfield was Timo Perez, Benny Agbayani, and Jay Payton. Sometimes they even fielded Joe McEwing, for chrissakes. Tell me that’s a pennant caliber team, and I’ll let you know about a bridge in Brooklyn I’ve got for sale.

And yet, when Phillips went off the deep end in 2002 and signed bust free agents like Jeromy Burnitz and traded for the over-the-hill likes of Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar, somehow it became Valentine’s fault that he could do nothing with these wastes of space (a lot of space, in Vaughn’s case). Plus, in the Great Tabloid Press Tug-of-War, nearly all the NY sportswriters despised Valentine. Sportswriters generally hate managers who believe they know more about baseball than the scribes do–even more so if said managers actually do.

So the newspapers fanned the flames for Bobby V’s demise, and the wrong man lost his job. At least at first. Phillips’ combination of unearned smugness and idiocy would earn him a pink slip the next year. I can think of no more qualified man to conduct fake press conferences and interview himself on ESPN.

At several points in Zen, you hear Bobby Valentine trying to fire up his team with an inspirational speech (how effective it might be through an interpreter, I can only guess). You hear him talk long and breathlessly about leadership. And you hear him speak about his vision for the future of Japanese baseball, about how the game “can’t afford” to lose such a large, prosperous nation that clearly wants to love the sport so much.

In one scene, while biking through a park, Valentine stops to play Wiffle ball with some teenagers, for seemingly no reason, other than just to goof around. But once he’s done, he asks the kids what they’re doing later that night. For a second, it looks like this is gonna take a really weird direction (“I’m having a little party in my suite tonight…”), but what he really wants is to invite the kids to the Marines game, and wants to leave them tickets at the gate. He is evangelizing for his team, for his sport, on a person-to-person level.

While watching this, I thought to myself, I can’t imagine Willie Randolph getting this fired up about anything. I don’t think a manager needs to upset buffet tables and get kicked out of games in order to be effective. But it would be nice to have a manager who does more than just sits back and thinks he’s gonna win because he’s always been a “winner,” whatever the hell that means.

Considering how much Bobby V did with the Mets’ little aggregate talent, I would take him back as their manager in a heartbeat. Especially since the Willie Randolph Regime seems dedicated to the exact opposite: getting less out of more. But the Wilpons burned that bridge once they decided to side with Phillips six years ago, and somehow convinced themselves that Art Howe “lit up a room”.

So what did that decision bring? Phillips plays fake GM on Baseball Tonight, and Valentine manages in a league that appreciates him. We didn’t know what we had together until we lost it, Bobby.