On Monday night, baseball fans across the country tuned in to watch the Giants play in a do-or-die game in the penultimate round of the playoffs. At first glance, this statement is fairly mundane, and you would naturally assume that it refers to the San Francisco Giants taking on the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the NLCS. However, due to a "Giant" coincidence, this statement was also true in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the major league in Japan, as well as the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), the equivalent in South Korea.
When Monday evening rolled around in Asia, there were still 14 hours to go before the San Francisco Giants hosted game 7 at AT&T Park. But that didn't stop their namesakes, the NPB's Yomiuri Giants and the KBO's Lotte Giants from playing decisive games in their respective playoff series.
In Japan, the Tokyo-based Giants were home to the Chunichi Dragons in Game 7 of the Central League's Climax Series - Final Stage. Perhaps some background would help you understand exactly what that means.
The NPB consists of two leagues (Central and Pacific), each with six teams that play a 144-game schedule, including 24 interleague games. In each league, the top three clubs make the playoffs. When the postseason begins, the champion gets a bye to await the winner of a best-of-three series between the other two clubs. Given the rather paradoxical name of "Climax Series - First Stage", this series has the second-place team hosting all three games. The winner then travels to face the first-place team in a best-of-seven series known as the "Climax Series - Final Stage". There is a twist here in that the pennant winner begins with a 1-0 advantage in games. In other words, the underdog needs to win 4 of 6 games, all on the road, to advance to the true climactic event of the season, the Japan Series.
In the Central League this year, the Giants had taken the regular season pennant with a dominant record of 86-43-15 (ties are very common in Japanese baseball, particularly after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the effects of which limit tie games to 10 or 11 innings). The Dragons had finished second, 10.5 games behind, and had barely beaten the Yakult Swallows in the First Stage, needing an 8th-inning grand slam from one-time Washington National Tony Blanco to take the deciding game.
The Dragons then arrived at the iconic Tokyo Dome to take on the Giants for six games, quickly winning the first three, perhaps taking advantage of the ten-day break that the Giants had endured since their last meaningful action. The Giants rebounded in Games 5 and 6 (really the fourth and fifth games to be played - remember that 1-0 advantage the Giants had?) to set the stage for their Monday night showdown.
Meanwhile, South Korea was also getting in on the Giant coincidence. The KBO has only eight teams in a single league playing a 133-game schedule, with the top 4 clubs making the playoffs. Here, the pennant winner gets a bye to the Korean Series, while the second-place finisher gets a bye to the second round. The third and fourth place teams hold a best-of-five and the winner takes on #2 in another best of 5. This season, the Busan-based Lotte Giants, finished fourth but upset the Doosan Bears 3 games to 1 in the first round of the playoffs, earning them a date with SK Wyverns. The Giants took a 2-1 lead in that series, only to have the Wyverns win game 4 and send the series back to Incheon for the decider on Monday night.
So how did these two leagues end up with teams dubbed the Giants? Is that yet another coincidence? Not really. When a baseball team formed in Tokyo back in 1934, Lefty O'Doul who was acting as a goodwill ambassador, named the team the Giants in honor of the New York Giants with whom he had won a World Series in 1933. The team's colors and logo were very similar to that of the New York team, who of course eventually moved to San Francisco.
The Lotte story is more difficult to determine. The team was founded as an amateur squad in 1975 before turning professional in 1982, the first year of the KBO. Their colors are also orange and black, but the logo and uniform are somewhat different. There is also no other obvious link between this team and the one based in San Francisco; in fact, Busan's sister city is Los Angeles, home of the Giants' most bitter rival, the Dodgers. Perhaps the origin of the name is lost to history, but it is unlikely to be a complete coincidence given the similar colors.
So we end up here, Monday October 22, 2012, with all three clubs in a deciding playoff game to reach their championship series. The games in Tokyo and Incheon (home of the Wyverns) both started at 6 p.m., which was 2 a.m. on the West Coast. In Tokyo, the Giants won 4-2 behind five shutout innings from California native D.J. Houlton to complete the comeback from 3-1 down and advance to face the Nippon Ham Fighters. Sadly for the Lotte Giants, they fell 6-3 to the Wyverns, who move on to face defending champion Samsung Lions.
Fortunately for San Francisco fans, their Giants followed in the footsteps of the team that took their name over 75 years ago, and they will go on to play the Tigers in the World Series. That's the Detroit Tigers to be more precise, not the Hanshin Tigers (NPB) or KIA Tigers (KBO), both of whom missed the playoffs this season. But who knows, with baseball continuing to grow internationally, maybe one day we will see a championship series with the Giants and Tigers actually coming from different nations!