Changing of the Guard in Japanese Baseball

Posted by at 12 July, at 20 : 00 PM Print

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

The Americans Marty Brown, left, manager of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, and Bobby Valentine, manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, before a game last month.

Published: July 11, 2009

CHIBA, Japan — When Bobby Valentine and Marty Brown brought out the lineup cards before a game last month, they shook hands as equals: United States-born managers of Japanese baseball teams.

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Fans of Hiroshima, top, at the stadium in Chiba. Fans of Chiba Lotte, above, make their feelings about Bobby Valentine clear. The Marines have said that Valentine won’t return in 2010.

But the meeting behind home plate was also a passing of the torch of sorts, from the volatile Valentine, who is known for shaking up the status quo, to the more subtle Brown, who is willing to work within Japanese traditions.

After years of success, Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines are fifth in the six-team Pacific League. Management has said it will not bring him back in 2010 because of his high salary. Valentine’s high profile in status-conscious Japan has not helped, either.

Brown has revived the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, a perennial cellar dweller in the Central League. Midway through the season, the Carp are in fourth place and Brown’s star seems to be rising, while Valentine’s appears to be waning.

Unlike Valentine, 59, who has basked in the limelight he helped create by turning the Marines into winners, Brown, 46, is building a competitive team in a more understated, Japanese way.

After Brown, an easygoing Oklahoman, spent parts of three seasons as an infielder with the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles, he played three solid seasons with the Carp starting in 1992. He was known for a gutsy style of play that endeared him to the team’s long-suffering fans. He also lived through the brutal regimen of practices and meetings that are legendary in Japan, particularly in Hiroshima.

That experience set him apart from other foreign managers when he returned to Japan to manage the Carp in 2006, two years after Baseball America named him minor league manager of the year with the Class AAA Buffalo Bisons. Like other foreigners before him, Brown initially tried to trim some of the long pregame throwing sessions, the practices on off-days and the parade of meetings. But he backed off when he realized that he was hired not to upend the routine, only to nudge the team forward.

“I thought they wanted a lot of change when I came in, but it was a total misunderstanding,” Brown said of the team’s principal owners, the Matsuda family, who helped found the automaker Mazda. “You either learn to adapt or get a new job.”

Brown’s blended approach has started to show results. Unable to compete financially with big-market teams like the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo and the Hanshin Tigers in Osaka, Hiroshima has bolstered its roster with young pitchers and focused on swift, more athletic fielders.

Brown took a broader view of practices, recognizing that players need them psychologically as much as physically. But he insisted that players prepare mentally, trying to visualize how games will unfold and what their roles may be.

“He’s taken the good points of the U.S. and the good points of Japan,” said Ken Takahashi, who pitched for Brown in Hiroshima before joining the Mets this year. “His main thing is to focus on the game itself and not just the training.”

Brown has embraced his role as a nurturer of young players, and done his best to fire them up. In 2007, he earned national attention by throwing first base into the outfield to protest an umpire’s call. The incident, immortalized on YouTube, won over the fans, some of whom wear T-shirts that read, “My Manager Throws Bases.”

“It’s not like Bobby, who is held on high,” said Yu Murota, 29, a Carp fan who lives in Chiba, standing below the left-field bleachers at Chiba Marine Stadium. “Brown is in it together with us.”

Hiroshima, which has not won a pennant in the six-team Central League since 1991, finished a game under .500 last season, the team’s best showing in seven years. In the off-season, Brown was rewarded with a new contract, and he married a Japanese woman. He also speaks passable Japanese, another sign that he is willing to set down roots in a country leery of foreigners who do not make an effort to mix in.

Valentine has certainly planted roots in Japan, too. In 2005, he became the first foreign-born manager to win the Japan Series and the Matsutaro Shoriki Award for his contributions to Japanese baseball. Valentine, who had an undistinguished 10-year major league playing career, is proud of the medal, which he sometimes shows to visitors. But as his team has slipped in the standings, some in the Lotte organization have turned against him.

Fans handed management a petition with more than 100,000 signatures asking that Valentine be kept, and ownership could reverse course. But just in case, Valentine has taken some of the pictures off the walls in his office and shipped them to his home in Connecticut.

“It’s been a nice ride until the electricity went out,” Valentine said while watching batting practice.

Unlike Valentine, who guided the Texas Rangers and the Mets, Brown did not manage in the major leagues. Americans with more humble baseball pedigrees may be better suited to managing in Japan, though. Kansas City Royals Manager Trey Hillman, who managed in the Yankees’ minor league system, lead the Nippon Ham Fighters to pennants in 2006 and 2007 in Japan.

Valentine said he had told Brown to prepare fastidiously in detail-oriented Japan and to make sure that he was understood, not just heard, counsel that Brown appears to have taken seriously.

“Players are more relaxed with Marty, that’s for sure,” said Shogo Kimura, a Carp infielder who played for Japanese managers on other teams. “Marty is frank and uses words that are easy to grasp.”

Brown’s approach seems to include tact and compromise, two traits the Japanese value.

“He has just the right personality for Japan,” said Robert Whiting, the author of “You Gotta Have Wa,” a highly regarded book on Japanese baseball. “The fact that he has had three unremarkable seasons and was still asked back says a lot. There is something to be said for understanding wa and harmony.”

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