The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks fittingly received the nation’s top pro sports accolade for their dominant season in 2017.
The Nippon Professional Baseball club was bestowed the grand prize for the first time at the 50th Japan Pro Sports Awards in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Boxer Ryota Murata, Indy 500 champ Takuma Sato and the Hawks’ record-setting closer and 2017 Pacific League MVP Dennis Sarfate each received outstanding performance awards.
Chunichi Dragons rookie infielder Yota Kyoda was named the best newcomer.
Star player Seiichi Uchikawa was handed the Prime Minister’s Cup on behalf of the Hawks as their captain.
The 35-year-old missed half the season with a fractured left thumb but came through for SoftBank in the postseason, with homers in four straight games during the Pacific League Climax Series Final Stage. He then showcased his ability to come through in the clutch by hitting a game-tying solo homer in the bottom of the ninth inning that contributed to the Hawks’ victory in the decisive sixth game of the Japan Series in November.
Citing his own heroic performance in the playoffs, Uchikawa cracked a joke during his remarks to the audience at the reception ceremony, saying, “This is an award won by our entire team . . . actually, if I myself hadn’t hit home runs in four games in a row and hit a game-tying homer in the ninth inning of the Japan Series, we wouldn’t have won this award.”
This year marked the 24th time either an NPB player or team has won the award, but the Hawks were the first club to do so since the Yakult Swallows in 1978. The Japanese national team that claimed the inaugural World Baseball Classic title in 2006 has also been honored.
Shohei Ohtani, who is set to play for the Los Angeles Angels in the major leagues next season, was the winner last year. Career home run king Sadaharu Oh and Ichiro Suzuki have been honored the most, each winning the award three times.
The Hawks collected 94 wins (49 losses) in the regular season, the fifth-best NPB record of all time, and clinched their 20th PL pennant on Sept. 16, earlier than any other team in PL history.
They went on grab their eighth NPB title by defeating the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in the Japan Series in six games.
Murata, who became the WBA middleweight champion after winning a rematch against Hassan N’Dam on October 22, has been invited to many award ceremonies this month and feels a little perplexed to have been in the spotlight so much.
“I don’t even know if I’m deserving of an award like this,” the 31-year-old said. “But it’s been a big deal to me and I’ve just been overwhelmed.”
Nevertheless, Murata allowed that he had a great year in 2017, during which he grabbed the world title belt he’d been aiming for since turning pro in 2013.
“I’m going to have my title defense next year and hopefully, I’ll wind up fighting on a bigger stage,” the 2012 London Olympic gold medalist said.
Sato, a former Formula One driver, became the first Japanese to win the Indianapolis 500, successfully wheeling his Andretti Autosport machine around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28. He said he’d been given many accolades in both Japan and the United States, but was happy to have another major, esteemed honor to wrap up his storybook year.
“As I had moved to a new team (in 2017), we made our biggest goal coming into this season to win at the Indy 500,” said Sato, who will move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next year. “And we won it as the whole team and were extremely happy.”
Meanwhile, 15 individual athletes were given awards to honor their achievements.
They included sumo’s Kisenosato, who became the first Japanese-born yokozuna in 19 years in January, and former WBA super featherweight champion Takashi Uchiyama, who retired this year and had made 11 consecutive successful title defenses, third-most ever by a Japanese boxer, before losing to Jezreel Corrales in 2016.
Also, a total of 16 athletes, including Kyoda, were recognized as the top newcomers in their respective pro sports.
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