The Corner

A Valentine For Japan?

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.

It’s important to remember, first of all, that the job of an ambassador is not what it once was. If you read histories of diplomacy, war and international affairs in the 18th and 19th Centuries, ambassadors often loomed large. They shaped the perceptions of their governments back home, directed military and cultural responses in crisis, hammered out agreements. The entire concept of international law arose from the importance of international recognition of the diplomatic immunity of ambassadors.
But that role has been in a long decline. World War I shattered the camaraderie of the diplomatic corps in Europe, and advances in travel and technology – the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, radio, television, email and the internet – have severely eroded the need for ambassadors to be free agents, subjected them to much greater supervision by their home governments, and made it easier and more common for great powers to send higher-ranking diplomats like the Secretary of State and even the President to handle more delicate matters in person. The 20th Century also saw a great expansion in the professional Foreign Service and intelligence staff of embassies. Today, while ambassadors must still be able to manage the personnel of their embassy, most are mainly ceremonial figures charged with promoting goodwill and handling more routine communications.
That’s not an excuse for the tendency of presidential administrations – accelerated by President Obama – to appoint ambassadors who were big donors with no experience and laughably little knowledge of the country they were posted to. But Valentine would start off with two advantages a lot of modern ambassadors lack – he speaks the language and he’s lived in the country, both thanks to seven seasons over two tenures as a manager in the Japanese Baseball League. He’s a popular figure in Japan, somewhat unusually in a country that hasn’t always warmed to American baseball mercenaries: having won the championship there that eluded him in America, he became a true Japanese celebrity:
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.



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