14 December 2006

NPB Notes:::Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

Founded: 1938 as the Nankai Hawks, changed name to Kinki Nihon in 1944, Kinki Great Ring for '46 and '47, back to Nankai from '47 to '87, Daiei Hawks in '88 and, from '89 to '04, the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks until Softbank bought the team and changed the name for the 2005 season.
Owner: Softbank Corp., a telecommunications and media corporation.
Home base: The Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome, the first retractable dome in Japan -- the Hawks are the southern- and westernmost NPB team and are based on the south island of Kyushu. The Hawks began play in Fukuoka in '88 (after moving from Osaka) and moved into the dome in '93. It's modeled after SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) in Toronto and is noted not only for its bars and restaurants but also for its 18-feet-high walls, spaciousness and unfavorable sight lines for fans.
Titles: 15 league titles (13 Pacific League titles), 4 Japan Series titles (1959, 1964, 1999, 2003)

With Kyushu Island all to themselves for major league baseball action in Japan since 1988, the Hawks have proven to be one of the more popular teams in the NPB. The Hawks have had a storied history since being founded in 1938. The early years through 1944 were rough for Hawks fans as the team had only 1 winning season early on and it was 2 games over .500. With the hiring of Kazuto "The Godfather" Tsuruoka (1916-2000) for the 1946 season, the franchise's fortunes turned, however, as, when the dust settled on Tsuruoka's managerial career in 1968, he was (and still is) the all-time winningest manager in NPB history with a record of 1,773-1,140-81. He led the team to 2 of its 4 Japan Series titles (another legend would help guide the team to the other 2) and, in his early days as a player-manager, was a three-time MVP ('46, '48, '51) with a Best Nine in '51. He led the Hawks to 21 straight non-losing seasons from '46-'66 (spoiled only by a 67-67-1 season in '49) as part of his run, including a team-record 99 wins in 1955 with the dream season spoiled by a loss to Yomiuri in the Japan Series in 7 games. Series titles would also elude Tsuruoka and his Hawks in a 91-win 1954 and a 96-win 1956 as Nishitetsu (now Seibu) took the league title in those years. It wouldn't be until a ho-hum 88-win season in 1959 that the Hawks would first taste victory in the Japan Series.

Six different MVPs would play for Tsuruoka over his tenure but all were one-season winners other than C Katsuya Nomura, who would end up as Tsuruoka's greatest player. Nomura overcame a poor childhood after his father died while Katsuya was a youth to beat out nearly 300 other competitors in a Hawks tryout and begin a legendary career that spanned a record 26 seasons (all but the last 3 with Nankai) and 3,017 games from 1954-1980. His 657 career homers (second all-time in NPB behind Sadaharu Oh) include a then-PL-record 52 in 1963, four straight seasons of 40 HR or more ('62-65), seven straight 30-HR seasons ('62-68), eight straight PL HR crowns ('61-68), a record 11 sayonara (walk-off) homers, and 12 grand slams (5th all-time in NPB). His Triple Crown season in 1965 (.320, 42, 110) was the first in NPB after WWII. He batted .287 for 21 All-Star teams, including qualifying for his final one at the age of 45 in 1980. Nomura was a 5-time MVP, 7-time PL RBI champ, was named to 19 Best Nines and won a Gold Glove in 1973. After ending his career with a BA of .277 and 1,988 RBIs, Nomura continued a managerial career that began as a player-manager in 1970. He managed the Yakult Swallows in the '90s and Hanshin from '99 to '02. Nomura took over as manager of Rakuten in 2006 and guided them to a lowly 47-85-4 record.

It would be another MVP that would lead the Hawks to their first Japan Series title in 1959. With Tsuruoka in the dugout and Nomura behind the plate, SP Tadashi Sugiura would follow up a 27-12, 2.05 ERA Rookie of the Year season in 1958 with an even better 1959. He went an astonishing 38-4 in that season with a 1.40 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP with 336 K and only 35 BB in 371 1/3 IP in a lockdown MVP and pitching Triple Crown season. Meanwhile, 1B/OF Kohei Sugiyama nailed down the batting title at .323, Nomura hit 21 HRs, future HOF IF/OF Yoshinoro Hirose hit .310 and OF Shigeo Hasegawa hit .302 for his only season above .300. In the Japan Series, Sugiura pitched 32 of 37 total innings in winning all 4 games of a series sweep over Yomiuri to capture the series MVP. Offensively, three Hawks hit over .400 in the series led by 1B Yosuke Terada at .467. Sugiyama batted .429 in the series while 2B Isami Okamoto hit an even .400.

The Hawks would fall prey to the Giants in the '61 series but would return triumphantly after an 84-win season in 1964 thanks to the pitching of 6-5, 211-lb. Oklahoman Joe Stanka, who entering the season had won 54 games for Nankai since 1960 before putting together a 26-7 record with a 2.40 ERA in an MVP season in '64. His numbers weren't phenomenal otherwise but it was enough along with a batting title from Hirose at .366 (his last season over .300 included a 27-game hit streak and the second highest BA for a righty in NPB history -- he also threw in 72 SBs) to get Nankai to the Japan Series. Hirose would later cap a long career with the Hawks by taking over for Nomura as manager in 1978. Nomura also played his part in '64 with a PL-leading 41 HR and 110 RBI while Sugiura enjoyed the last 200 IP season of his HOF career at 20-15 with a 3.02 ERA with 162 K in 270 2/3 IP. Stanka proved his worth in a 4-3 win over Hanshin in the Japan Series as the Hawks fought back from a 3-2 deficit behind two Stanka shutouts in games 6 and 7 to win their second series title. Stanka was 3-1 with a 1.23 ERA in the series to earn MVP honors and Hirose batted .345 to lead the team on offense. Nomura cracked 2 HRs but hit under .200 as he did in the '59 series.

The winning would continue two more seasons under Tsuruoka but Yomiuri took the titles in '65 and '66. Tsuruoka would be gone by 1969. There would be six more winning seasons before the losing started in 1978 when Hirose took over as manager. The Hawks ran off a string of 16 straight losing seasons that ran into the '90s after the team had moved south to Fukuoka. American Don Blasingame took over the team for two seasons in the early '80s while Sugiura couldn't get a winner either in four years as manager in the '80s. The bright light in these relatively dark ages for Hawk baseball was the emergence of OF Hiromitsu Kadota, who from 1970 to 1992 racked up 567 HRs (third all-time) for the Hawks and Orix Braves. His hitting exploits included 16 homers in the month of July, 1981, en route to a HR title with 44 jacks as the first Hawk since Nomura in '68 to take a longball title. He added a second with 40 HR in 1983 and, at the age of 40 in 1988, added HR and RBI titles with totals of 44 and 125, respectively, along with an MVP award (again, the first since Nomura in '73) in the team's last season in Osaka. The 14-time all-star and seven-time member of the Best Nine mainly DH'ed after an achilles injury in 1979. P Michio Sato racked up a ROY in 1970 and two ERA titles in the '70s for the Hawks but the team's dark ages continued until the coming of a legend in the 1990s.

The team showed signs of life in 1994 by finishing the season at 69-60-1 under Rikuo Nemoto but Sadaharu Oh would come in to manage in 1995 and follow up three losing seasons with a return to the Hawks' winning tradition. The most famous Japanese player prior to Ichiro, Oh hasn't won less than 73 games in a season since 1999, which also marked the team's return to winning with the first PL title since 1973. Leading the way for the now Fukuoka Daiei Hawks was veteran P Kimiyasu Kudo, who had an MVP season with an 11-7 record, ERA title at 2.38 and a 0.90 WHIP in 196 1/3 IP. C Kenji Johjima hit .306 with 17 HR and 77 RBI in his third full-time season for the Hawks and first Best Nine and Gold Glove season. Also emerging that season were 1B Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who hit .268 and slugged .514 in hitting 23 HR for the Hawks and would go on to do bigger and better things in more recent years, and 2B Tadahito Iguchi, another soon-to-be Japanese export, who hit only .224 in 1999. Texan RP Rodney Pedraza debuted with a 1.98 ERA and 27 saves in 59 IP and RP Takayuki Shinohara posted a 1.25 ERA and 14-1 record in 79 1/3 IP. The Hawks took down Chunichi, 4-1, in the Japan Series for their third series title. OF Koji Akiyama was MVP after hitting .300 with 2 HR overall in the series and a great defensive play in game 3. Matsunaka and Johjima had 4 RBI each in the series win. Iguchi hit .286 in the series.

In 2000 it was Matsunaka's time to shine as he posted an MVP campaign of .312/.387/.582 with 33 HR and 106 RBI. Johjima hit .310 in a second-straight good season for his second Best Nine and Gold Glove but Iguchi hit a lackluster .247. His BA was on the rise, however. Pedraza posted the first of his two straight Fireman of the Year awards and save titles with 35 saves and a 2.15 ERA in 50 1/3 IP and 3B Hiroki Kokubo hit .288 with 31 HR and 105 RBI. A significant Hawk would serve his first full season for Daiei in 2000 in the form of Kazumi Saito, who put up a ho-hum 4.13 ERA in 22 games. The Hawks made it back to the Japan Series but lost to nemesis Yomiuri, 4-2. Johjima hit .348 and Akiyama hit .333 in the losing effort but Iguchi hit only .200, Kokubo hit .143 and Matsunaka hit .053. It wouldn't be until 2003 that the team made it back to the Japan Series. Johjima, Matsunaka and Saito would lead the way. Johjima was MVP by hitting .330/.399/.593 with 34 HR and 119 RBI for his 3rd Best Nine and 4th Gold Glove, Matsunaka hit .324/.429/.573 with 30 HR and 123 RBI, Saito was 20-3 for his first Sawamura with a 2.83 ERA (league leading) and 1.24 WHIP in 194 IP, Iguchi hit .340/.438/.573 with 27 HR and 109 RBI, Puerto Rican import OF Pedro Valdes added numbers of .311/.397/.545 with 27 HR and 104 RBI and another import, Julio Zuleta, hit .266 with 13 HR and 43 RBI in 67 games. P Toshiya Sugiuchi emerged on the mound with numbers of 10-8 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.25 WHIP and 169 K in 162 2/3 IP and '03 Daiei #1 pick P Tsuyoshi Wada debuted with a 14-5 record, 3.38 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 195 K in 189 IP. The Hawks came back from a 3-2 deficit in the Japan Series once more, this time to defeat Hanshin in 7 games. Sugiuchi was the MVP with 2 wins and a 0.60 ERA and WHIP in 15 IP. Wada won another game and had a 1.50 ERA and 0.73 WHIP in 15 IP. Offensively, IF Munenori Kawasaki, who had hit .294 in the regular season, led the way with averages of .391/.462/.609 in the series, Matsunaka and Zuleta both hit .333, Valdes hit .321 with 3 HR, Johjima hit .241 with 4 HR and Iguchi hit .231.

Despite winning records the last three seasons, the Hawks have failed to return to the Japan Series. Matsunaka, Wada, Sugiuchi and Saito continue to produce for Softbank, as the name changed to in 2005. Iguchi and Johjima have crossed the Pacific to play stateside, Oh had serious stomach surgery in 2006 to leave his future up in the air and Kawasaki and P Nagisa Arakaki stepped up their games. Matsunaka won the Triple Crown and MVP in 2004 with numbers of .358, 44 HR and 120 RBI, and Sugiuchi won the MVP in 2005 with an ERA title at 2.11, a wins title at 18 and second place in Ks at 218 behind newest Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. It was Saito's turn in 2006 as he won the pitching Triple Crown in the PL with a record of 18-5, a 1.75 ERA and 205 Ks in 201 IP. Matsunaka hit .324/.453/.528 with 19 HR and 76 RBI in his 10th season, Kawasaki hit .312 and Zuleta led the team with 29 HR and 91 RBI. Wada was 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA and 136 K in 163 1/3 IP, Arakaki was 13-5 with a 3.01 ERA and 151 K in 155 1/3 IP and RP Takahiro Mahara saved 29 games and posted a 1.65 ERA and 62 K in 54 2/3 IP. With Matsuzaka now in the MLB, Saito assumes the throne as NPB's best pitcher.

Bob Bavasi's JapanBall Hawks site

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