Makihara, dressed in a blue sweater and gray slacks, is seated in a second-floor meeting room of the Tokyo Grand Palace Hotel on the eve of the Japan Series. Almost two dozen upholstered chairs adorned with white lace antimacassars are arranged around a cart with a television and a VCR. A solitary oil painting, of Mount Fuji, hangs behind the TV set.
This is where the Giants have been meeting nightly all week to study videotape of the Lions and to prepare their strategy. Though they are playing at their home stadium, they are sequestered from their families and staying at the Grand Palace. The thick drapes are drawn closed, just as they have been ever since the first night when somebody jumped up and said, "Close the curtains. Somebody might be looking in with binoculars."
Makihara, 31, was one of 60 players after last season with the minimum 10years of service time needed to be eligible for free agency. Only five of those players actually filed, including Makihara. "Once you declare, that means you have decided you are willing to move out of the organization," [to says. "In our culture we do not take that so lightly. We do not change jobs so many times as you do in America."
Players typically comply with management, because after they retire they can expect to get another job within the organization or an affiliated company, not all of which are plums. "We have a former five-time All-Star picking up laundry in the clubhouse," says outfielder Dan Gladden, a former major leaguer with three teams, who's now a Giant gaijin. The Yakult Swallows dropped out of the players' union a couple of years ago because they decided they were treated so well by their owners they didn't need it.
The Chunichi Dragons offered Makihara a contract, but he re-signed with the Giants after they agreed orally on a contract of "three to four years," he says. "It's not officially approved by the league. Only one-year contracts are approved." Makihara threw a perfect game in May and started the Giants' pennant-clinching victory, a win on the last day of the season over the Dragons, with whom they had been tied with a 69-60 record. The game drew a 48.8 share, the highest for a baseball game in Japan in the 31 years such statistics have been kept.
The Giants are Japan's Team and, by their own pronouncement, "the most traditional team in baseball." Every one of their 130 games was on network television (the Lions made five such appearances). The Giants are so important to Japan's sense of well-being that their success has been directly tied to the nation's economy: It grew an average of 4.25% in each of the eight years in which the Giants won the Central League between 1973 and '90. As the theory goes, a happy Giant fan is likely to spend money more freely. That would include the team's owners, also proprietors of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world. In appreciation of the Giants' league title this year, the owners are sending the players and their families on vacation in Australia.
The Giants are as coldly corporate and efficient as the New York Yankees of the 1950s. After a few down years they reasserted themselves this season, the hallowed 60th for Japan's first professional team. In a culture that tracks a person's life in 12-year cycles, a 60th birthday is honored with a special gift. This one turned out to be the end to a three-year streak without a league title, which had equaled a franchise record. Says Lion manager Masaaki Mori, "This is the series everyone has been waiting for."
In 1974, on the final day of the regular season, the Giants held a retirement ceremony for their beloved third baseman, Shigeo Nagashima. The Giants' run of nine straight Japan Series titles had ended and with it the career of one of their greatest players. There were tributes and flowers and tears all around, especially when Nagashima took the microphone and, in the closest thing Japan has had to Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech, pledged, "The Yomiuri Giants are forever." Even players in the visiting dugout wept.
As Nagashima walked off the field, he was congratulated by a receiving line formed by his teammates, among them a catcher known for his astuteness and defensive skills: Masaaki Mori. Nobody seemed to notice that Mori, who had also played in the Giants' "V-9" glory years and who had also announced his retirement, was playing his last game as well.
The Giants soon named Nagashima their manager. Mori asked him for a job on the coaching staff. Nagashima refused.