To Mets fans, Bobby Valentine needs no introduction: The flamboyant player turned manager helped lead the Mets out of their nineties rut and all the way to the World Series in 2000. But as depicted in the new Tribeca film The Zen of Bobby V, it turns out Valentine's a massive celebrity in Japan, thanks to his management of the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team. Directed by three NYU students — Andrew Jenks, Andrew Muscato, and Jonah Quickmire Pettigrew — the engaging Zen follows Bobby V through a season of baseball in Japan, while he ruminates on the differences between the American and Japanese game, copes with his home away from home, and poses for lots of pictures with ordinary folk. Bobby V recently spoke to Vulture on the phone from Japan, where the season began a little over a month ago.
What made you decide to let three NYU students follow you around with a camera? Did you have any concerns?
For starters, they were so persistent. It was kind of a three-year trip they took — calling me, e-mailing me, telling me about their idea, about their passion for the project. Finally, after I met them and saw the documentary they made before this [Andrew Jenks's Room 335], I decided to do it. I did have some concerns. Eight months — that’s a long time. But they were very special, wonderfully intelligent, and creative. And I can say it was the greatest experience of my life, hanging out with three 21-year-olds. [Laughs.]
When you first arrived in Japan, did you have any idea of the kind of media celebrity you'd become there?
When I first got here in 1995, I came to change the world. I wanted to make a big splash. And I got fired at the end of that season. That was when I realized how much the fans had taken to me — there was a genuine outcry for me not to leave. But you have to remember what the world of baseball was like in 1995. That was the year [Hideo] Nomo went to the U.S. He was basically the first modern-day pitcher to go there. As he was going, I was coming. And I was thinking that maybe a bridge or a highway could’ve been built between the two cultures.
What about now? Do you feel you’re any closer to building that highway?
The highway’s been built, but it's kind of a one-way road right now. Players leave here and go there. There haven’t been a lot coming back in return. As the documentary shows, since Nomo left, about 40 top-level players have left Japan. When you consider there are twelve teams, that’s about three top players per team, on average. That’s a lot to make up for.
What do you think is the reason you've become so popular in Japan? Is it just winning or something else?
I really don’t know. Timing is so much in life. The first time I came here, there was a lack of commitment on my part, and when I went back to New York, I got one of the most popular players in Japan, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, to come over to the Mets. Then, when I came to Japan the second time, I came without any reason other than to make this league as good as it could be. I embraced the culture. Plus, I have a name that’s easy to translate. They do their chocolate day in February and March, so it’s easy for them to remember.
What is the biggest difference between Japanese baseball and American baseball?
When people watch this film, they’ll hopefully see that these three guys captured the fandom here, which is really different. The fans have an incredible amount of passion. The game on the field is the exact same game, but it’s played with precision, the way it was many years ago in the States, before it became a power game. The double play and the sacrifice run and the sacrifice play are still common here. The 100-mile-an-hour fastball and the 500-foot home run are not.
You note in the film that you have an extremely difficult time losing. When you watch the film now, is it tough watching yourself lose?
It’s not tough. It’s part of my life. I’ve managed a few thousand games. I’ve won more than half of them, but I’ve lost over a thousand. I never get used to it. My passion for the game makes me take it personal.