The Yomiuri Giants would like -- to put it mildly -- to forget the 1984 season. Yomiuri, Japan's most celebrated baseball team, finished third.
Legendary slugger Sadaharu Oh, who retired with 868 homers, saw his first year as Giants manager become a nightmare as the team lost 14 straight to a single opponent.
What's more, the team's owner, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, had decided to mark the team's silver anniversary by inviting the Baltimore Orioles to come and play Japan's No. 1 team. Who else but the Giants? the patper figured. Instead, the Orioles will play the Hiroshima Carps. Yomiuri still will foot the bill.
"Things have ended in a away I never imagined at the beginning of the season," Oh was quoted in the Shimbun as saying just before the final game of the season.
In Japan, where baseball is played with as much an eye to honor as victory, the fans are not taking this calmly.
In mid-July, with the team stumbling from defeat to defeat, Tokyo police arrested an arsonist. He confessed that he had set 10 fires in frustration, he said, over the Giant's string of losses.
Japan's caustic sportswriters have labeled last seaons's stars, hitter Tatsunori Hara and pitcher Suguru Egawa, as "Class A War Criminals." A cartoon in the magazine Sports Graphic Number compares the Giants to soup bones with all the juices boiled out of them.
With packed stadiums, national heroes, a string of consecutive pennants and national championships, the Giants are often compared to the New York Yankees of the late 1940s and early '50s.
At each Giants home game, mobs of fans fill the general admission outfield seats. With their own cheerleaders in command, fans use orange megaphones that amplify voices or serve as drums, creating a terrific din in the stadium.
"We still cheer, even when they miss and lose," said 19-year-old Aya Takeuchi during a recent game at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium.
Armies of "salary men," the Japanese term for white collar worker, turn on their televisions at home with their families. Big games draw up to 35 million viewers nationwise, rating agencies say, more than one in four people in all Japan. Some other teams' games do well to get a tenth of that number.
The first professional team playing a game was brought to Japan in 1873; the Giants were born in 1934. Their owner is the Yomiuri conglomerate, publishers of the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the largest daily newspapers in Japan.
In the past 50 years, they have won the Central League pennant 32 times. Sixteen times, they have won the Japan Series, the local equivalent of the World Series. Japan's second league, the Pacific, draws only about half of the Central's 10-million annual stadium attendance, primarily because it has no Giants.
The 1983 season saw the Giants take the pennant again, winning 72 out of 130 games. It was a good, if not spectacular, season.
But this year, things went wrong from the start and the Giants never caught up. In June, just two months after the season opened, they were already 10 games behind the Carp and the Nagoya Dragons.
Yomiuri lost 14 consecutive games to the Dragons, a league record.
Third baseman Hara hit 32 homes in 1983, had 103 RBI and his highest-ever batting average, .302. This year, it was 27 homers, 81 RBI and a .278 average.
It was the same story for Egawa. In an all-star game this summer, he struck out eight players in three innings. But in regular games this season, his earned-run average was 3.48, his worst ever.
"Egawa, Again the Traitor," snarled a headline in Nikkan Sports after a bad game in July. "With Egawa's pitching," the article said, "all dreams have vanished. The thin hopes for a turnaround victory have gone far, far away. Even the Giants' management can't believe it.
"The 50th anniversary of the Giants has vanished into darkness due to this treacherous knockout by Egawa."
Many fans are convinced that Egawa is holding back something to lengthen his career. Hara is often criticized for smiling broadly, even when he strikes out. To many Japanese, this is proof that he is not a true "puro" (pro).
Both men came out of Japan's intensely popular high school leagues, and ahve been national figures since their middle teens. It is said in the sports press that the two gained fame too early in their careers and have been spoiled.
Manager Oh is said to be taking it all hard. The man who surpassed the home run records of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron (although the smaller parks in Japan make it a questionable comparison) was making his debut as a manager.
He has blamed himself, suggesting his superstar status made him unapproachable. "The players never came to me asking questions," he told Yomiuri. "It seems the players feel more distance from me than I had imagined."
Tatsuyuki Mutai, a sportswriter for the Shimbun, feels the basic problem is too much success for too long. He recalls that just 30 minutes before a recent game, one of the Giants started talking about a new pet dog.
"To relax is okay," Mutai said, "But it seemed they had forgotten the game. It left me much depressed . . . They do not realize the importance of playing the game and showing they can fight."
Other theories say the Giants have grown flabby on commercial endorsements. Oh sells sweet cakes on television, Hara peddles Subarus and Egawa plugs a Yomiuri housing journal. Hara and Egawa make between $600,000 and $800,000 a year, most of it from endorsements.
The Pacific League's Seibu Lions, in contrast, have banned commercial efforts by their players. Oh is said to have told friends he is considering a deal with Hara by which both would swear off commercials. In the meantime, their faces show up on television daily.