Expect Koshien Stadium to be rocking this weekend.
When the Yomiuri Giants come to town under normal circumstances, the atmosphere is electric and the stadium is packed to the brim with supporters of the mighty Kyojin, the most storied franchise in Japan, and the Hanshin Tigers, who have maybe the most vocal and demanding fan base in all of baseball — on either side of the Pacific.
Throw normalcy out the window for this one. Because Saturday, the venerable stadium that’s stood in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, since 1924 and has been home to many great moments in baseball history, hosts its first Central League Climax Series contest.
With the Giants, of all teams, as Hanshin’s opponent.
The Tigers and Giants enjoy the most fierce rivalry in Japan, and it’s comparable to the top matchups in other nations. If the Giants are the Japanese equivalent of the New York Yankees, then the Tigers are the Boston Red Sox.
The procession of stars to whom the two franchises can lay claim is a who’s who in Japanese baseball lore.
For the Giants, there was Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima, who formed the O-N Cannon in the ’60s and ’70s, Tatsunori Hara, the heartthrob who manned third base for the Kyojin in the ’80s and ’90s, and Godzilla, Hideki Matsui, leading the cavalcade of stars from 1993-2002.
Among some of the former Hanshin greats are bearded Oklahoman Randy Bass, who helped slug the team to the 1985 Japan Series title, Yoshio Yoshida, a defensive maestro in the ’50s and ’60s, and “Mr. Tigers” himself Masayuki Kakefu.
The V-9 Giants of 1965-73 won nine consecutive Japan Series crowns and may be the most popular group in the history of Japanese baseball, while the ’85 Tigers’ title run and aftermath is one of the game’s most colorful stories.
On Saturday, the revered history of the two franchises will intertwine in the Climax Series for the first time.
Prior to 2007, the regular-season winner in the CL automatically advanced to the Japan Series.
In the first two years of the CL Climax Series, the Chunichi Dragons beat the Tigers in the first stage to spoil a potential Giants-Tigers matchup. Hanshin didn’t make the playoffs last year.
The Dragons won the regular-season pennant in 2010, leaving Yomiuri and Hanshin to duke it out in the first stage.
This year’s Giants are as loaded as ever with a roster featuring the last three CL MVPs (Michihiro Ogasawara in 2007 and Alex Ramirez in ’08 and ’09), All-Stars in shortstop Hayato Sakamoto (.281, 31, 85) and catcher in Shinnosuke Abe (.281, 44, 92) and the deepest bench in Japan.
Hanshin boasts a club that led Japanese baseball in runs (740), has offensive stars in Takashi Toritani, Craig Brazell, Matt Murton and Kenji Johjima, an up-and-coming pitcher in Atsushi Nomi and firepower in the bullpen with Kyuji Fujikawa at closer.
Tigers fans would love nothing more then to send their Tokyo counterparts packing, with the added satisfaction of watching their beloved team deal the crushing blow to the Giants’ aspirations of another Japan Series title.
The Hanshin fan base is hungry for postseason success after last winning the Japan Series in 1985 and watching the Giants collect five titles since then.
An up-and-down year ended the Giants’ three-year reign of regular-season dominance. They’ll hope to have sorted out their numerous issues on the mound before the series begins.
Their fans will be rooting for the Kyojin to put their boisterous Kansai brethren in their place.
Giants-Tigers, Yankees-Red Sox, The Evil Empire vs. the Rebel Alliance. Japan’s signature rivalry has thrived for generations and will do so for many more.
The atmosphere at Koshien Stadium is ratcheted up another notch anytime the hated Giants are in town. It may be off the charts when the Tigers and Giants meet on Saturday.