Be our Valentine: Fans back manager

CHIBA, Japan -- Bobby Valentine put the fans first in Japan, and in his moment of need, they're paying him back.

An increasing number of fans of the Chiba Lotte Marines are holding nightly vigils in support of their manager, upset at the Japanese baseball club's refusal to extend his contract beyond the end of this season.

In his seventh season with the Marines, the charismatic Valentine has long been a fan favorite in Japan. That's not only for what he's done on the field -- the Marines won the Japan Series championship in 2005 -- but also because he's made significant progress in making Japanese baseball more fan-friendly.

"We want to show our support for Bobby," Chiba Lotte fan Jun Okazaki said. "He gives us exciting baseball and makes us feel like we all have a chance in life."

Fans in right field at Chiba Marine Stadium wear T-shirts that say "Bobby 2010" and wave huge signs with slogans such as "No Bobby, No Marines," and "Always Behind Bobby."

Before going into the stadium, fans can sign a petition to keep Valentine beyond the 2009 season. Okazaki said they already have about 50,000 signatures for Valentine, who led the New York Mets to the World Series in 2000.

"It's an amazing thing, I find it hard to put into words what this means to me," an emotional Valentine said Friday. "These fans decided this is what they are going to do and they go out and do it. These are people with jobs: executives, students, housewives, it's an incredible thing."

Valentine's presence is felt everywhere at Chiba Marine Stadium. There is a special section of the stadium where kids can sit in the "Bobby Seats" free of charge and a street near the stadium has been renamed Valentine Way.

Even when things aren't going that well -- the team missed the playoffs last year and got off to a slow start this season -- Lotte fans just can't seem to get enough of Bobby V, who signs autographs and poses for pictures with fans every chance he gets.

Team president Ryuzo Setoyama announced in the offseason that the team couldn't afford Valentine after this season.

While Valentine prefers not to discuss the specifics of his contract, reports in Japan suggest that he makes $3.9 million per season. After being told the team would not bring him back for 2010, Valentine offered to re-negotiate his contract to make it more affordable for management to keep him on the payroll.

There are signs the situation is becoming a problem for Lotte's front office.

In April, Setoyama was forced to deny rumors the club was considering relocating because of the fan protests. In minutes from a team meeting that were leaked to the Japanese media, Setoyama was quoted by Kyodo News agency as saying, "If we have unworthy fans like this, let's move [our home stadium]."

Setoyama denied the comments, saying they were a "forgery."

Meanwhile, the 59-year-old Valentine has said he accepts the team's decision and is doing his best to keep things positive in the clubhouse.

"It's definitely a bizarre situation," said Lotte outfielder Benny Agbayani, who also played for Valentine in New York. "I've never seen a situation like this where a manager was told so far in advance that his contract wouldn't be renewed. It's a major distraction for sure but Bobby is dealing with it well."

The standoff between Lotte fans and management is reminiscent of 1995, when Valentine was let go despite leading the team to a second-place finish in the Pacific League.

Valentine, a native of Stamford, Conn., returned to the United States to manage in the major leagues, and his success with the Mets only added to his popularity with Lotte fans who felt betrayed by management.

General manager Tatsuro Hirooka said Valentine was being let go because he didn't understand Japanese baseball. Others argued his popularity with the players and the fans rubbed Hirooka the wrong way.

As they are doing now, fans tried to petition the club in '95 to keep Valentine, but it was too late. This time, they began at the start of the season and hope their efforts pay off.

"We're here for every home game and will be here until the end of the season," Okazaki said.

The Marines are in fifth place in the six-team Pacific League, and the top three teams qualify for the postseason.

If Valentine can get his Marines to move up the standings in the next few months, the showdown between Lotte fans and the front office is likely to heat up.