Reports circulated yesterday that the Trump transition team was considering former Mets, Rangers and Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine to be U.S. Ambassador to Japan. (Standard caveats about unsourced personnel leaks apply). Valentine has spent the bulk of his life in baseball, and his record as a baseball manager was hardly what you’d call diplomatic. A workaholic and a control freak, Valentine came off as a smug know-it-all in his first tenure as manager of the Texas Rangers back in the late 1980s (when Valentine was still in his thirties), ending in being fired by George W. Bush. He’s mellowed some since, but as Mets manager in 1999, he famously got fined and suspended by the league for sneaking back into a game he’d been thrown out of wearing a crude fake-mustache-and-glasses disguise. In 2012, I called him “the Newt Gingrich of baseball managers.” His experience in government is limited to a one-year stint as Director of Public Safety for the City of Stamford, Connecticut. But he’s actually a better choice than you might think.
He once ranked first in a list of men you would like to have as your boss in Weekly SPA, a business and entertainment magazine. After the Japan Series win, there was a little Bobby-mania. They made and sold Bobby Beer. Bobby Burgers were sold in Lotteria, the fast-food chain owned by Chiba Lotte’s parent company. Even a little shrine, “Bobby Jinja” was elected in a nearby shopping mall, where fans can go to receive good luck….Fans even wrote him his own cheer/fight song. Marines fans chanted and sang a fight song for him at the game. Japanese fans do this for players, but almost never for managers.Perhaps most telling was his last year in Japan. After Valentine took the Marines to the Japan Series title, Lotte signed him to a contract worth a reported $20 million for four years, which was the second-largest annual salary for a manager at the time in the world, behind only the Yankees’ Joe Torre.But when the world financial crisis struck and the team struggled, the team announced Valentine would not be back after the 2009 season before the season even started. Fans were in protest mode from the beginning of 2009 season, and fans organized a grass-roots movement called “Bobby 2010,” to gather signatures on a petition to keep Valentine in Chiba after the season. By June, they gathered more than 110,000 signatures and submitted them to the club.
ESPN even produced a well-received documentary on “The Zen of Bobby V.” Valentine is reported to be friendly with Prime Minister Shizo Abe, a fellow USC alum, always a good first step, and maintains a variety of business and sports connections in Japan, including a 2014 youth baseball tour. He worked tirelessly to deliver aid to Japan after the 2011 earthquake/tsunami, including a partnership with AmeriCares that delivered 14 tons of medicine.
America’s partnership with Japan could become more important in the next several years, as the island nation has shaken off some of the war-weariness of the past seven decades and stiffened its spine at Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, and Donald Trump seems intent on a more confrontational posture towards China. The big decisions will be made in the White House and the State and Defense Departments; it will mainly be the job of the ambassador to put a friendly face on that policy. Valentine, while an unconventional choice, may well be the man for that job.