Having a Ball in Japan

Having a Ball in Japan

Larry Rocca helps stoke the rising interest in Japanese baseball.

By Paul Karr

Larry Rocca ’90 confers with Marines’ manager Bobby Valentine
Larry Rocca ’90 (right), chief operating officer for the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team in Japan, confers with Marines’ manager Bobby Valentine.
Photo courtesy of Chiba Lotte Marines

The love affair with Japanese baseball began even before Rocca came to Tokyo, but the move was the latest chapter in a well-traveled baseball career in which he has done everything from covering the New York Yankees and Mets for Newsday and other big-city newspapers to dressing up as Henry the Puffy Taco (in the heat of Texas, no less) to washing and painting the exteriors of minor-league ballparks. In Japan, Rocca has boosted the Marines’ revenues, is arranging a scouting program (with fellow Colby alums) linking the Sox to the Marines, and is working for that global World Series.

“Larry has done a great job of teaching and a great job of learning,” said Valentine, also the former manager of the Texas Rangers, who is wildly popular in his adopted home. “He’s been able to teach some of our American ideas to some of the front-office personnel, and he’s also been able to learn a lot about how things work here.”

Rocca has always been a quick study.

At Colby the American studies major had brief flirtations with classics and baseball tryouts (he was cut twice) before switching his interest to media, developing a call-in sports radio program for WMHB and becoming sports editor (later news editor) of the Colby Echo.

“I have nothing but great memories of my time at Colby,” said Rocca. “If I had gone to a larger school, I would not have had the same number of opportunities.” After graduating he worked in sports television production and minor league baseball before spending 11 years with Newsday covering Major League Baseball.

While covering the Dodgers in 1995, Rocca—whose father spoke fluent Japanese—also was writing for Tokyo Chunichi Sports, Sports Yeah, and the Japanese version of Newsweek. That led him to a book deal, co-writing a Japanese-language biography of Hideo Nomo, the first Japanese pitcher to succeed in the American major leagues. Covering the Mets in 1997, Rocca struck up an acquaintance with Valentine, whom he pestered regularly as a beat reporter digging for scoops.

“I think the fact that I shared Bobby’s great enthusiasm for Japanese baseball was something that set me apart and helped us sort of hit it off,” Rocca said.

When it finally came to teaming up, it fell together quickly. During a hectic week in the fall of 2004, Rocca attended his father’s funeral, broke off a wedding engagement, and e-mailed Valentine about a rumored job offer. Ten days later he was flying to Tokyo for an interview, and he was soon appointed the Marines’ director of promotions.

His life hasn’t been quite the same since.

Rocca has spent nearly three years pitching luxury seats, Bobby Burgers, and blogs. He orchestrated deals that landed MasterCard logos on the club’s batting helmets and The Hartford life insurance insignias on the pin-striped uniforms. “I couldn’t have imagined my life would take this path,” he said.

“Larry has done a great job of teaching and a great job of learning.”

Bobby Valentine
Manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines and former
New York Mets manager

Though his work obligations leave little time for Tokyo nightlife beyond business dinners and meetings, two years ago Rocca moved from an apartment near the ballpark (about an hour outside the city) to the Azabudai-Roppongi neighborhood, the city center. It’s a hopping district of nightclubs, towering shopping malls, and the greatest concentration of foreigners in Tokyo.

During the off-season, Rocca takes language lessons to improve his fit into Japanese culture, and he also has helped introduce American-style business practice into the management and promotion of the club. Japan’s baseball profile may be a rising star on the world sporting scene, but the bulk of Japanese teams lose money hand-over-fist, operated chiefly as brand extensions of their parent corporations rather than fan-friendly or for-profit business entities. (Rocca also notes that his Japanese boss is a savvy international businessman who held top jobs at IBM and Deutsche Telekom and “knows a hundred times more about business than I do.”)

Valentine—and, in his service, Rocca—have set out to change that way of thinking, nudging forward such American-bred ideas as interleague play, collective bargaining, additional rounds of playoffs, and weight training for players. They have helped create one of the world’s best-integrated sports fan clubs, which works roughly along the lines of an airline frequent-flyer club. Thanks partly to these efforts, revenues have quadrupled since Rocca joined the club, and he’s been rewarded with a recent promotion to the position of deputy to the team’s chief operating officer.

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