Monday, August 24, 2009

Documentary Review: "The Zen of Bobby V"

I'm gearing up for my upcoming tour of Japanese baseball, so last week I watched The Zen of Bobby V, a documentary based on Bobby Valentine, the manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan. Done without narration, filmmaker Andrew Jenks tells the story of the Marines' 2007 season through interviews, news clips, game footage, and graphics describing the situations.

I've seen better documentaries (Ken Burns's The Civil War, Wings of Defeat, about kamikaze pilots), but Jenks did an admirable job of catching the essence of Japanese baseball and how foreigners in Japan adapt to the Far East's version of the national pastime. In one scene Valentine talks to Rod Delmonico, a Florida State baseball coach (who was incorrectly fonted as Rob Delmonico), about practice and describes Japanese baseball in microcosm: "At the beginning of practice, you don't have to look around and find out who's not here. Everyone's here early."

Another delightful moment is provided by infielder Jose Ortiz. Ortiz describes ordering spaghetti at a Japanese restaurant and asking his server not to sprinkle the customary seaweed on top. This causes confusion, and the manager of the restaurant subsequently comes out and is baffled by Ortiz's request. "It comes that way," it's explained to the infielder. "That's the way it is." I loved this story, and I think anyone who has tried to order a Japanese meal with something on the side or without onions can relate. "They just have to do it the way they're supposed to do it," says Ortiz with big smile.

Now that I've read Andrew Jenks's essay on Huffington Post, I understand why this documentary isn't as polished as it could have been. That's because he was an 18-year-old freshman at NYU when he first pitched the idea of documenting Bobby Valentine's season. Still, it's professional, and it's amazing that Jenks and two of his college buddies were able to follow the most popular baseball manager in Japan with a camera for eight months.

Even though I know how the 2007 season ended - with the Marines just missing out on another trip to the Japan Series - the young filmmakers did a nice job of creating suspense during the Marines' Pacific League championship series with the Nippon Ham Fighters, managed by current Kansas City Royals manager Trey Hillman.

Overall, the flow of the documentary is decent. There is a good mix of Valentine's life outside of baseball, his job as a manager, and his efforts to improve the Japanese product. Valentine expresses his concern about the depletion of the Japanese professional league due to the mass exodus of the best Japanese players to Major League Baseball. Interspersed between Bobby V's press conferences announcing his efforts to create another minor league team are shots of MLB scouts with radar guns checking out Marines pitchers Masahide Kobayashi and Yasuhiko Yabuta (who now play for the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals, respectively) and an interview with a SoftBank Hawks executive who is surprisingly candid when he proclaims that the NPB has good players but bad management.

Despite all of that, the Japanese game still remains popular with the Chiba Lotte Marines fan club. The raucous fans in The Zen of Bobby V show their dedication to their team by hanging on every pitch, singing personalized songs for each player, travelling north to Hokkaido, and crying unashamedly when the Marines fail to make the Japan Series.

Could The Zen of Bobby V have been better? Of course. But for a quick look into how an American succeeded in possibly the most homogeneous country in the world, this is a good place to start.

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