The Fukuoka Daiei Hawks’ caging of the Hanshin Tigers in Game 7 of the 2003 Japan Series seemed at the time as if it would be the heralding of a new dynasty in the Pacific League.
The newly crowned champions that year had a bright future ahead of them with a roster featuring 2003 PL MVP Kenji Johjima, PL rookie of the year Tsuyoshi Wada, Japan Series MVP Toshiya Sugiuchi, Sawamura Award winner Kazumi Saito, sparkplug shortstop Munenori Kawasaki and a host of other top-shelf players.
Daiei (which would become known as Fukuoka Softbank in 2005) would indeed go on to win the next two regular-season pennants.
Additionally, many of the aforementioned starred for the team in succeeding years, notably with Sugiuchi and Wada each going on to win an MVP and Sawamura Award and Kawasaki solidifying his spot as one of the nation’s top shortstops.
Since the 2003 season, the Hawks have been an “A-Class” squad in the PL six times, including last season’s first-place finish. They have not, however, been able to back that success up with another Japan Series title.
Now the window is closing on a team that instead of being on the cusp of challenging for multiple titles from 2003, may have actually reached its zenith that year.
While change seems to be on the horizon, the Hawks do have at least one more chance as currently constructed to capture another championship.
The remnants of that ’03 team are scattered across the NPB landscape.
Saito is more or less out of baseball. Sugiuchi and Wada are still with the team, as are slugger Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Kawasaki. Catcher Johjima and second baseman Tadahito Iguchi each had a sojourn in the majors, with the latter winning a World Series title with the Chicago White Sox, before returning to Japan with the Hanshin Tigers and Chiba Lotte Marines, respectively.
Of the remaining group, Matsunaka is a shell of his former self, though he comes through from time to time seemingly on muscle memory.
Wada and Kawasaki, meanwhile, will have each reached the requirements for international free-agency after this season, with both expressing at least an interest in testing the MLB waters.
Sugiuchi isn’t too far behind, having reached the requirement for domestic free agency, with worldwide freedom within view.
That all adds up to a Hawks team that needs to win now, before facing the daunting task of replacing Kawasaki and rebuilding the front-end of the pitching rotation.
Sure, there is a chance all three are with the team going forward, but the siren call of the majors has been one few have resisted in recent years. Besides, there’s still no way to put Matsunaka’s current decline in reverse.
The good news is they have the pieces, new and old, to capture the title that’s eluded them since 2003.
The Hawks are the best team in Japan right now, sitting atop the PL standings and steamrolling through the first 10 games of the interleague schedule with an 8-0-2 mark.
The bad news is that regular-season success hasn’t usually meant much.
The Hawks have been the league’s best regular-season team before and failed to even advance to the Japan Series.
Most of the faces have changed since 2003, with Yuichi Honda, Seiichi Uchikawa and Tadashi Settsu poised to become the new point men for the franchise.
Still, with the careers, at least in Japan, of the remaining core members about to reach a fork in the road, winning another title would help put a definitive stamp on a successful era of baseball in Fukuoka.