The Tokyo Yomiuri Giants are as much symbols of success in Japan as the Yankees once were in American baseball. But this season the Giants have hit the skids, and although such an occurrence hardly qualifies as a national crisis, it is pretty much being treated as one.
Screaming headlines in red ink in the sports dailies have chronicled every setback. Artisans among the headline writers have had a field day expressing exasperation or delight.
Television stations have spent entire programs discussing the issue of ''What's wrong with the Giants?''
One major station devoted two hours of evening prime time to the subject, including comments from an expert panel in the studio, filmed interviews with stars past and present, and slow motion video studies of every player's batting and pitching action to try to detect why the team has lost its golden touch.
No one, however, seemed to consider the possibility the other teams may simply have gotten better.
Once perennial champions - they won nine straight national titles between 1965 and 1973, for example - the Giants have shown indifferent form in recent years.
Last year, it looked as if they were on the verge of rediscovering the old glory. They won their division title easily, only to lose a heartbreaker in the seventh and last game of the local version of America's World Series.
An estimated 30 million loyal supporters across the nation were plunged into despair. But hope springs eternal, and this year everything looked right.
The Giants had a new manager, their former batting star Sadaharu Oh, the man who surpassed Hank Aaron's home run record in the late 1970's to be become a national hero.
Modest, unassuming, ''Mister Nice Guy,'' Oh took over a team bristling with batting and pitching talent commanding the highest salaries in the Japanese sports world.
It didn't work out. The star batters failed to come through in clutch situations. The mound aces saw their best pitches hammered mercilessly around the ball parks. Early leads of as much as six runs were tamely surrendered. By the last month of the season the Giants were slowly improving, if still struggling to make 500.
Long before then, however, the team's performance had become a matter of national debate.
Japan is a tradition-steeped country, and the Japanese respect strength not weakness. There is no interest here (as there is in the United States, for instance) in the underdog. Power wins out every time, and even when losing the Giants somehow epitomize those qualities the Japanese most admire.
This makes every Giants' defeat even more galling.
And some cannot stand it any longer. A recent outbreak of arson in Tokyo, for example, was finally pinned on a disgruntled fan who said he started the fires to relieve his frustration.
Television personality Kenji Suzuki, an ardent fan, confessed: ''I snatch up every available sports newspaper in the morning after the Giants have lost in the hope of finding at least one that reports a victory instead.''
Hundreds of fans held a rally in which they criticized manager Oh and his highly-paid stars for spending too much time making television commercials and not enough playing good baseball.
Another group solemnly passed a resolution demanding the Giants realize the ''social consequences'' of their failure.
Millions of young Japanese boys want to emulate their heroes and would be adversely affected by the current lack of ''spiritual discipline,'' it declared.
Like the old New York Yankees, the Giants are a team most fans feel very strongly about one way or another.
Owned by the country's leading daily newspaper, which also controls one of the largest television networks, the Tokyo team dominates the publicity stakes - win or lose.
Even if they are in last place (as they have been in recent years on occasion) the enormous public interest ensures that the Giants will always play before packed houses for every game. They dominate television coverage, with their games screened at least five nights a week. TV cartoon series and comic books help expand the Giants' image.
Interviews with fans spilling out of Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium after a recent game reveal an element of glamour and excitement that no other team can generate.
The Giants are the country's oldest professional club - celebrating their 50 th anniversary this year - and have always attracted the best.
Giants players tend to be larger than life, glamorized and promoted through numerous commercial appearances.
Baseball has become the country's No. 1 sport, so ingrained in national life that many Japanese find it hard to believe it was the United States which invented the game.
For years there has been a longing here to stage a genuine ''World Series'' between the American and Japanese champions to settle the question of who's best. This desire grew with Japan's success in winning the baseball event at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Last year's major league champion Baltimore Orioles will visit Japan this fall for a series of games with the top Japanese team.
The Yomiuri had seen this as a fitting way of celebrating the Giants' 50th anniversary, until the team's bumbling performance put and end to the dream.