“The Zen of Bobby V” is an entertaining film on the colorful Bobby Valentine, a former major leaguer who has made a place for himself in the alien baseball culture of Japan. While there’s plenty to celebrate in this sprightly docu by tyro student helmers Jonah Quickmire Pettigrew, Andrew Jenks and Andrew Muscato — and the articulate, eccentric and ultra-accessible Valentine is a filmmaker’s dream — it is his interaction with his new Asian homeland that makes this docu, which aired May 13 on ESPN2, so enjoyable.
Valentine’s checkered career in the States is briefly summarized, with emphasis on his leading the Mets to the 2000 National League pennant (followed by a last-place 2002 season) and his genius for offending the front office. Valentine enjoyed a brief stint managing Japan’s Chibe Lotte Marines early in his career, but this initial expatriate escapade didn’t stick.
After being fired by the Mets, Valentine returned to Japan in 2004 and has remained ever since, despite offers from Major League franchises to return to the U.S. Docu, following Valentine and the Chibe Lotte team over the 2007 season, illustrates why Valentine has chosen to stay in Japan.
Valentine shares with Japanese fans and players a selfless dedication to the sport that has all but vanished from American baseball — and makes the manager the unquestioned authority in the locker room. At the same time, the Japanese carry this respect to what other countries might deem civilized extremes. After a loss during which followers weep and tear at their hair, the fans then solemnly turn and pay homage to the rival winning team.
Somehow Valentine’s flamboyant, outspoken personality dovetails perfectly with the frenzied yet ritualized decorum of Japanese sportsmanship, while his openness to the culture — learning the language, eating the food, greeting the people wherever he goes — makes him extremely popular in a normally somewhat xenophobic country. Filmmakers trail along after Valentine as he cycles around the countryside, past signs for hamburgers and beers named after him. Valentine speaks out about the necessity of stopping the attrition of top Japanese players to American teams.
Helmers Pettigrew, Jenks and Muscato also catch their hero posing for endless endorsements, tirelessly fulfilling his interactive role as baseball icon. Given Valentine’s utterly cozy relationship with Japan, filmmakers could retitle their perfectly turned puff piece, “Found in Translation.”