Chiba Lotte manager Bobby Valentine led the club to a 2005 Japan Series title and the club’s attendances and revenues have skyrocketed during his second tenure as skipper. Even so, ownership claim the former Mets and Rangers manager’s $3.9 million salary is excessive and have already announced he’ll not return in 2010, a situation that’s led to an unusual fan uprising. The New York Times’ David Waldstein reports the Marines have been greeted with 70 foot banners bearing slogans such as “we would rather fight with Bobby, who says we™re the world™s best fans than with a front office who calls us worthless (link courtesy Colby Spath)

With more than 50,000 signatures on a petition to keep Valentine, this is a struggle, the fans believe, that goes to the heart of Japanese baseball. They see Valentine as a positive influence who is leading the team and the sport toward a more viable future by promoting more access to players and more fan-friendly marketing concepts.

At the same time, they view the current front office, led by the team president, Ryuzo Setoyama, as more interested in the status quo, under which, they contend, fans have been treated less as coveted customers and more as people expected to attend games out of a sense of duty. Although the team insists that Valentine simply makes too much money to be retained in 2010, the fans believe other factors may be in play.

œThis problem is more than Japanese baseball itself; it™s about the Japanese society, Kazuhiro Yasuzumi, a 39-year-old Marines fan and leader of the protest, said through an interpreter. He said that people with power and influence in Japan did not necessarily appreciate someone like Valentine, who has never been bashful about offering his opinion.

The fans took their protest beyond the stands, going directly to the acting team owner, Akio Shigemitsu, in the stadium parking lot after one game and asking him to reconsider. Then came a front-office meeting. The minutes of that meeting were leaked to the Japanese news media and portrayed Setoyama, the team president, speaking derisively about the team™s fans and discussing the possibility of moving the team out of Chiba.

In response, the team held a news conference in which Shigemitsu declared his support for Valentine through the end of the season and denied the team might be moved. Setoyama disputed the comments attributed to him; he did not respond to a request by The New York Times for an interview.

In what we’ll have to presume is a related circumstance, Valentine announced in mid-March that he’d cease posting to his Valentine’s Way blog (“there are so many unanswered questions as to what has happened thus far and probably what will happen from here on now, but I think it is best in this public forum to keep those questions unanswered, and to just thank everyone, and wish everyone the best of health, the greatest of times”)