Although ESPN aired this documentary, produced by its ESPN Films division and directed by Andrew Jenks and Jonah Quickmire Pettigrew, I finally got around to watching it this weekend. I had put it off mainly because I didn't expect much from it.
I have always viewed the subject of this film, Bobby Valentine, as a self-promoting blowhard in the image of his mentor, Tommy Lasorda. I felt that the filmmakers would just go over many of the traditions of Japanese baseball that Americans find strange, such as the organized rooting sections and the occasional tie games. However, I found the 86-minute film to be a very well-done look at both Valentine and the challenges faced by Japanese baseball today, all framed by the 2007 season of the Chiba Lotte Marines.
The film does not use a voiceover narrator. Most of the story is told directly by Valentine or by subtitles imposed over Japanese speakers or game action. Valentine comes across as a passionate advocate for preserving Japanese baseball and helping the game grow there and prevent it from being knocked off the top of the Japanese sports pyramid by soccer.
Valentine, unlike other Americans who have managed in Japan such as Trey Hillman and Terry Collins (both of whom are now back in the U.S.), has embraced Japanese culture. He has developed a working knowledge of Japanese and claims to speak at about a sixth grade level. He eats Japanese food and rides a bike to get around Chiba.
There is no doubt that Valentine is quite popular in Japan. He has a hamburger and a beer named after him. People on the streets recognize him and want pictures and autographs. It's safe to say that Valentine is far more popular in Japan than he was in New York.
The filmmakers interview Valentine's wife, his friends, and his players (both Americans and Japanese players), and all speak of his passion for the game, especially the Japanese game.
Valentine probably isn't the person who will singlehandedly save Japanese baseball from its doldrums (a sport can only go so far with incredibly poor management), but Valentine wants to try. He wants the challenge. He already took one of Japan's traditional baseball doormats and won a Japan Series with them and came within one game of going back to the Japan Series in 2007. (The Marines are off to a slow 22-30 start this year.) But to take on the entire Japanese baseball structure will be a challenge that may finally be too much for Bobby V.