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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2000

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Waiting and hoping in vain for the end of a Giant headache


When in love, one learns to put up with your partner's flaws, no matter how distasteful.

In my case, however, this has not been easy. For there is one chink in my love affair with Japan that forever snags my sensitivities. One nagging headache that will not go away . . .

The Tokyo Giants.

Now there are more than a few people who insist that the Giants are not a national flaw. In fact, the total number of such people reads about 50 million.

For most of these people, to even hint that the Giants are anything less than the center of existence is to invite them to bite you. Especially this year, as the Giants -- the finest team buckets and buckets of money can buy -- are now a lock for the Japan Series.

Meaning the rest of the land is faced with the rosy prospect of seeing and hearing even more about the Giants -- as if a 24-hour media glut wasn't enough.

To put this in perspective let me say that I am not a baseball fan. No, sir, I am a Chicago Cubs fan -- which is different. Cub fans, who cheered their last championship in 1908, come imbued with eternal optimism, eternal patience, eternal objectivity and -- according to some experts -- eternal stupidity.

Which means we know feeble-mindedness when we see it. Believe me, Giants fever qualifies.

When I first took the field in Japan, about 25 seasons ago, I thought baseball would be a bridge to help me span my trials with language and culture. For I had heard Japanese followed the sport as much as I did.

But I had heard wrong. It wasn't baseball the Japanese followed. It was just the Giants.

That this one team and this one team only has virtually all of its games aired on national TV, night after night, is eerie to begin with. But back in the mid-'70s, in the sinking sun of the last Giants dynasty, the situation was even wilder.

Perhaps more so for me, living in Kumamoto, home of Tetsuharu Kawakami, manager of those Giants teams and himself a former Giants superstar. In the Japanese baseball pantheon, Kawakami plays a revered Moses to Shigeo Nagashima's more climactic Jesus of Nazareth.

So in Kumamoto English classes, when I asked the simple question of "What baseball team do you like?" I would be met with but one reply:

"The Giants."

Every single kid. Every single class.

For the seasonal All-Star games, I then noted that fans across the country typically voted in all the Giants regulars -- with ballot runners-up invariably being Giants bench-warmers, men who hardly ever played.

What's more, backed by the Yomiuri media chain -- which happens to own the Giants -- advertising, TV programs and feature writing crackled with entries about just this one team.

Now there is nothing wrong with popularity, but as the dynasty had been crafted in a draft-free talent system which could not help but draw the finest players to the Giants magnet, one had to wonder what it was people were cheering.

Could this really be considered competitive sport? It seemed more like a kabuki drama -- with all the lines set and the final outcome already determined.

"To properly understand the Giants," puffed one of my Japanese colleagues, "You have to weigh Japan's profound loss of confidence following the war against the heroics of clean-cut players like Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh. Their victories re-charged the nation."

"But," I answered, "wouldn't the victories mean more if the Giants had stiffer competition? And wouldn't competition strengthen the sport? And wouldn't strengthening the sport be good for the nation -- at least baseball-wise?"

At which point, the man bit me.

So I became what is known as an "anti-Kyojin," or anti-Giants fan. For me, who wins each game doesn't matter . . . as long as the Giants lose.

I was assisted in this development from two sources:

First, by the simple knowledge that Japan holds a bulging army of anti-Giants fans, people like me, who bounce to work with big grins on their faces whenever the Giants blow one.

And then second, by the support of my Japanese bride -- whose knowledge of sports roughly equates my understanding of Sanskrit. Yet, she had been raised the dutiful daughter of a rabid anti-Giants fan, who would punch off the TV whenever Yomiuri began to win.

Meaning my wife grew up with no taste for the Giants -- and almost no exposure to television.

The trickle-down effect of a balanced baseball draft -- which began in the mid-'60s -- spelled doom for the Giants super-teams, with this last quarter century producing but three titles.

The hordes of Giants fans have thus shrunk somewhat, only to be buoyed by the ever-present Yomiuri media blitz and the birth of player free agency. For with free agency the Giants have been able to return to their old tricks of simply buying all the best talent.

Another Giants dynasty may indeed be looming in the future. Some argue this bodes well for the economy. While others claim it is a bad sign for sanity.

Whatever, each night I now sit and seethe at the banal blather of baseball announcers, gnawing at their own tongues in fits of Giants ecstasy.

My young son asks, "Dad, why don't you turn it off? You know they're going to win."

"But there is always hope!" I bark back. "And I hope they lose!"

Hoping and losing. In the end, that's exactly what we Cub fans know best.



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