Bobby Valentine, American emigrant baseball manager in Japan, beams as he watches batting practice, “I never have to worry [if the players are] here. Everybody’s here.” A pennant winner with the New York Mets and an iconoclast with a history of alienating front-office execs, the publicly gregarious and preternaturally confident Valentine is given a tad-too-slick ESPN-produced encomium in The Zen of Bobby V, a documentary chronicle of his 2007 season helming the Chiba Lotte Marines. Two years after becoming the first foreign skipper to win the Japan Series title, the 57-year-old transplant is an omnipresent endorsement face and motivational speaker, lobbying the media and industry to upgrade the Japanese game’s drafting and development of players, while from the dugout attempting to meet the high expectations of Chiba’s fans, seen here as a rabid mass reminiscent of Texan college football rooters. (One cheerleader-mascot—a howling, shirtless young man—could pass for Ichi the Killer’s slightly more sociable cousin.) Valentine’s punctual players don’t seem to be in need of more than one rah-rah pre-playoff speech per year, given that they take the field for a 5-to-6-hour workout on an off day. Cross-cultural mishaps get their share of exposure, and in the film’s comedic highlight, a Dominican infielder for the Marines recounts a marathon effort to get a Kobe restaurant’s rigid staff to hold the “green stuff” (he suspects seaweed) from his spaghetti dinner.
Zen is overloaded with footage of camera-phone-toting admirers swarming Bobby V on his morning bike jaunts; directors Andrew Jenks and Jonah Quickmire Pettigrew fare better sticking to the nuts and bolts of Valentine’s job. Judging by a post-game media session, Valentine regards sportswriters as the dimmest professionals of the East or West; besides his field-managing duties and appearances in the PR spotlight for Chiba, his passion is in warning of the future attrition of Japan’s pro leagues if star players continue to leave for America, and proposing an international series between the U.S. and Nippon champions. Understandably a partisan for expanding the sport in a nation where his salary has reached $3.5 million, Valentine sounds a lament that “baseball” (presumably the increasingly globalized American industry) shouldn’t let the Japanese leagues be subsumed or weakened. It may be a generation before we know if he’s a prophet or a worrywart; in the meantime, lobbying to replace the abundant artificial-turf fields that have been all but abandoned in the States with grass would be an excellent move.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.