Japan is a work-oriented society. The 9-5 work shift is more like 6-9. Work seems to be the answer to everything. As one American reporter living in Japan pointed out, "even if I am not busy at work, I will always appear concerned, frustrated, and totally focused on something. If I appear frazzled after a long day at work, my co-workers will think 'wow, he must have gotten a lot done, look how freaked out he is'. Work is the one thing really worth doing and if you're not working, you're a parasite."
So when a recent study in Japan polled people throughout the country asking whom the Japanese people wished their boss was, everyone eagerly awaited the final result...
The blowout winner: Bobby Valentine.
I was a freshman in college at NYU when I read this article announcing Japan's most wanted boss. I couldn't believe it. I always wanted to make movies and this sounded like a ready-made film: an American baseball manager beloved in Japan. It was like Mr. Baseball meets Lost in Translation. I found a friend of a friend of a friend who thought she knew Bobby's email. I sent Bobby a long , two-page description of my vision. Unexpectedly there was an email back within minutes: 'I do not want to be involved with preconceived notions of baseball in Japan,' Bobby said. 'Japan is, I believe, the last major country on earth where baseball is truly the National pastime.' I quickly learned that Bobby took baseball very seriously. Although Bobby gave me permission to pitch the project, I was only 18 years old -- nobody was going to listen to a college kid looking to get financing for an 8-month shoot in Japan. So I packed my bags and decided to get real life experience: after my freshmen year at college, I moved into an assisted living facility in Florida. I wanted to find out what life was like for those nearing the end. Andrew Jenks, Room 335 went on to win top international film festivals and was bought by HBO. Suddenly, people were interested in my idea about Bobby Valentine. On my 21st birthday, March 5, ESPN green lit the film. Together with two of my college friends at NYU, we were on our way to Japan for 8 months.
In America, Bobby V is famous in the sports world. He was a baseball manager for over 20 years, and managed the New York Mets to a World Series in 2000 against the New York Yankees. In America, Bobby was often chastised for speaking too honestly and too often. Many didn't care for his comments that MLB was ready for an openly gay player, while others thought that his decision to re-enter a game after being ejected (while wearing a mustache so that the umpires wouldn't notice his return) was shameless self-promotion. Many say Bobby V was run out of the Big Apple.
A year after leaving New York, Bobby took his services to Japan where he became the manager of a little-known baseball team, the Chiba Lotte Marines. Some thought he could do well, but nobody expected him to gain much popularity. So when Bobby V became a household name, only two years after arriving on the scene, many people knowledgeable about Japanese culture were bewildered. After all, the outspoken Bobby V doesn't seem to quite fit the Japanese mold. Many consider Japan to be one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. Non-Japanese make up less than 1% of the population. It is a society that values conformity. Individual success is inferior to the success of the group. When you walk into an office in Tokyo, you will notice that there are hardly any offices nor any walls -- all employees are considered equal. Most houses are the same size as are most cars. The culture places a high value on uniforms -- it is rare to walk around Tokyo on a weekday and not see 95% of the population in a suit. When a coach on Bobby's baseball team noticed his advertising patch (a small emblem on the side of the jersey) was missing, he spent hours trying to re-draw the patch so that his uniform would remain exactly the same as everyone else's.
So in a country that lives by the expression 'The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,' how does a white, loud, and outlandish baseball manager became a revered demi-God? After all, in America, a place that celebrates characters like Dennis Rodman, Bobby V seemed too over the top. He wore out his stay in, of all places, New York City -- how can it be that in Japan, of all places in the world, Bobby V seems to be the perfect fit?
This is the question we explore in the film, The Zen of Bobby V.
In a small town outside of Tokyo, my two buddies and I lived down the street from Bobby V. We quickly became part of his entourage: everywhere Bobby went, so did the three of us. We would show up in newspapers, the nightly news -- always closely following Bobby with a camera and a boom pole.
When Bobby took over in 2003, the Marines had not won in 31 years, most of the seats at the home stadium were empty, and TV ratings were abysmal. Within two years, Bobby resurrected a perennial loser into national champions, winning the 2005 Japan Series and Asia Series. He is the first foreign manager to win either. Since then, the atmosphere has changed drastically in Chiba: many weekend games are nearly sold out, a group of diehard fans travel to every game, and TV ratings are improving.
Baseball is the hands down favorite sport in Japan. Kids play all day. Groups of dedicated fans travel around the country with their favorite teams. It is a national pastime. In one of the most homogeneous countries in the world, where baseball is bigger than life itself, Bobby V's winning accomplishments are a big, big deal. His celebrity demonstrates just how incredible the Japanese find his winning ways to be. His home stadium built a statue in his honor. He is on posters across Tokyo. When Bobby walks down any street in Japan, he is mobbed like a rock-star (it is fair to point out that since Bobby is white, he already catches the attention of most passer-byers). There is a street named after him called 'Valentine Way', a beer, 'BoBeer' and also a best-selling hamburger, 'Bobby's Burger'.
But there is much more than just winning baseball games that explains why Bobby Valentine has reached iconic status halfway across the world.
Bobby has immersed himself into the Japanese culture. He loves Japanese food and studies Japanese for at least an hour every day. In the spring, he frequents Japan's much-adored cherry trees. In July, during his first weekend off in nearly four months (it was the All-Star break), he climbed Mt. Fuji. When the season was over, and it seemed as if Bobby would head back home for his month and a half off, he instead took a three day jaunt across Japan: from a boy band concert in southern Japan (he appeared in a music video with the band) to a fire festival in Osaka.
Bobby has become notorious for riding his bicycle everywhere. After only a year of coaching in Japan, Bobby's coaches picked up on his love to ride and bought him a bike that he could bring everywhere the team traveled. It was always a sight to see the team bus being loaded/unloaded: there were bags, bats, gloves, and Bobby's bike. We quickly caught on. In the summer, we imported a tandem bicycle from Hawaii: this enabled one of us to peddle in the front and one of us to sit in the back to film Bobby riding.
It is important to understand what makes his actions so admirable in the eyes of the Japanese. Japan is a country that loves brand items -- Japan Disneyland is huge, Gucci, Nike, etc. So the same goes for baseball: the MLB brand is very powerful in Japan. Players would often tell me that any player, American or Japanese, who ever played in the States was inherently more respected amongst players, coaches, and fans. Walking through the streets of Japan, you will probably see more fans wearing MLB gear (Yankee hats, Red Sox jerseys, etc) than you will see fans sporting Japanese baseball gear.
Perhaps to the Japanese, this was an oxymoron: a MLB qualified coach deciding to leave the USA for a coaching job in Japan? American managers in Japan have never made it big in the US like Valentine has (Bobby has declined two managerial job offers in the States since being in Japan). It's clear Bobby isn't in Japan simply collecting paychecks (he does a good job of this also, pulling in over 3.5 million dollars a year). What places Valentine on this unprecedented platform is the fact that he loves their culture: their food, their language, their castles. He is a successful American who will never stay in his hotel room to watch a movie. In fact, Valentine often speaks proudly of Japan, eerily similar to a father bragging about his son: "Japan won the Michelin Star Rating this year. That's the annual poll that determines which country has the best food. Japan beat the perennial winner this year...France." Bobby smiled after he told me this the first day I arrived -- looking and hoping that I could begin to appreciate Japan the way he does.
Bobby still considers his work in Japan far from being finished. Although many consider his prowess in Japan second to none, Bobby feels as if he still fighting an uphill battle. For over a decade now, the top players in Japan have been taking their skills Stateside. According to Bobby, this exodus to America is slowly killing the game in Japan -- a game that he has come to respect and love. As strange as it to see Bobby managing in Japan, it is almost crazy when you see him holding press conferences urging his own players to not go to his homeland. According to Bobby, the baseball culture in Japan, one that is nearly as old as America's, is on a downward spiral.
So when Bobby is not coaching, he travels the country speaking to corporations, colleges, newspapers, and anyone that will listen. His message: Japan's baseball officials need to wake up before they realize that all of their players are no longer around.
"Bobby V is only comfortable if everyone else has counted him out," said Larry Rocca (a longtime baseball reporter and now executive for the team Bobby manages). His two jobs in the States were with teams that needed more than wins. 'He would wake up at 7AM, go the local rotary club, and give a 30 minute speech to 5 people, urging them to attend a Rangers game,' said Tom Grieve, Bobby's former boss with the Texas Rangers. The current Rangers clubhouse manager Zach Minasian said, 'Bobby created a baseball culture in Texas that had never existed before'. When Bobby went to New York in 1996, he was managing in the biggest city in the world--which made perfect sense only because his team (the Mets) would always be considered second best (to the Yankees).
It is clear that Bobby loves the underdog. So nobody should have been surprised when Bobby abruptly packed his bags and moved to Japan in 2003. Nobody should be surprised to hear that Bobby didn't take a job with a front-running team like the Tokyo Giants or Yomiuri Tigers. Instead, he took a job with a team that had arguably the worst TV ratings, the worst stadium, and quite possibly, the worst situation in professional baseball. Right now, there is no greater underdog than professional Japanese baseball. In ten years, the game as we know it in Japan, may not even exist. Sometimes nations love nothing more than their sports. Japan loves baseball. And Bobby V is trying to save 128 million people from the misery of losing their favorite game.
I am no longer surprised that Bobby let us make the movie. I sometimes think that if we were a polished, LA production company Bobby would have turned his back. But three NYU students who were looking for a big break? Bobby couldn't help himself.
The Zen of Bobby V premieres Tuesday night at 9PM on ESPN2.