From today’s NYT, here’s the article that best articulates my feelings about yesterday’s Tanaka press conference and the Yanks in general. I loved Tanaka’s swagger. I loved that he didn’t look awed by the situation. I loved that he thinks he belongs on the mound on Day 1. It really should be an exciting season. Read on……..
Masahiro Tanaka, standing next to Joe Girardi, was introduced in a private dining room on ground level of Yankee Stadium. Nobody sells hope like the Yankees. Nobody has such easy access to it. With their money and their marquee, they are a magnetic draw to an overseas sensation like Masahiro Tanaka, who buttoned up a No. 19 pinstriped jersey on Tuesday, tugged on that famous navy blue cap and proclaimed, in English, “I’m very happy to be a Yankee.”
To Tanaka’s right, on a dais before more than 200 reporters in a dining hall at Yankee Stadium, the team’s top executives clapped in delight. After missing the playoffs with an ancient, brittle roster, they had faced the prospect of a long, cold, lonely winter if they wanted to adhere to the goal of reducing their luxury-tax rate. Instead, they invested $470 million, and the penalties, in new talent.
“We know what our fans expect,” Hal Steinbrenner said. “They expect us to field a championship-caliber team, every year, as best we can. I think we’ve got a very good team. We have to stay healthy; that’s a given. But with a normal year of injuries, we’re going to be a force.”
Steinbrenner may be right. At worst, the point is debatable, but that really does not matter. What matters is that the Yankees are interesting again — and for pure baseball reasons, not the dark specter of an Alex Rodriguez controversy. How many homers will Brian McCann send over the inviting right-field wall? How will Jacoby Ellsbury energize the top of the lineup — and how will he play against his old team, the champion Boston Red Sox? How will Carlos Beltran perform on this side of town? Admit it. If you’re a baseball fan, you’re interested in those story lines. You will tune in again and maybe even buy tickets. And of all the stories, none is as compelling as Tanaka’s.
At 25, he is by far the youngest impact player on the Yankees. He showed a star’s flair with his arrival Sunday at John F. Kennedy International Airport on a rented 787 that transported only six passengers, including his pop-star wife and his poodle. It cost him an estimated $200,000. Tanaka said Tuesday that he chose such an extravagance because he wanted to arrive in top physical condition and had few other options. He mostly slept on the flight, anyway.
A more telling revelation was his reason for joining the Yankees. Tanaka sidestepped a question about the offers from other teams; the Yankees have already said that they outbid the field with their seven-year, $155 million deal. Money mattered, of course, but so did the stage. “I’ve heard this place could be very harsh to you at times,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “I just wanted to put myself, though, in this environment and try and see where I can get to with my ability.”
The Yankees have tracked Tanaka for years. General Manager Brian Cashman said the scouting reports would “dance and sing” as they came across his desk. When Tanaka was finally cleared to meet with interested teams last month, the Yankees dispatched eight people to see him. Cashman said no other team sent more. Cashman compared Tanaka to Orlando Hernandez, who brought a winning swagger from Cuba in 1998. Randy Levine, the Yankees’ president, said Tanaka’s self-assurance reminded him of Hideki Matsui, the Japanese outfielder whose 2003 introduction was the only news conference to attract more reporters than Tanaka’s, the team said. “We went out to L.A. and met him and talked to him, to try and say, ‘This is where you need to be, you’re a great star, the biggest franchise, the biggest brand, the biggest city,’ ” Levine said. “He said some other teams had wanted him to transition in, and he didn’t like that. He wanted to take the ball on Day 1. That told us a lot about him.”
No pitcher in major league history has posted a record as dazzling as Tanaka’s for the Rakuten Eagles last season: 24 wins, no losses. His 1.27 earned run average last season would be the best by a major league starter since Bob Gibson in 1968. His save in the final game of the Japan Series, after his start the night before, evokes Randy Johnson against the Yankees in 2001. The Yankees have cautioned against overhype. Pitchers from Japan must get used to the hitters, a slightly larger ball and a less rigorous throwing program. (Kei Igawa, a spectacular failure a few years ago, confounded the Yankees by throwing against a fence, on his own time, unsupervised.) But Cashman’s assertion on ESPN Radio that Tanaka has merely the potential to be a No. 3 starter was hard to believe. If the Yankees wanted a No. 3 starter, they could have signed Matt Garza and saved about $120 million.
“How he’ll settle in in the States, at least in fairness, I’m going to say — especially in the first year — a No. 3 starter,” Cashman reiterated Tuesday. “And if we get more, all the better. We think he’s got a great deal of ability. We’re excited to have him join this franchise. We’ve got a lot of high-end talent we brought in, including him.”
True enough, but Tanaka is the only notable addition to a pitching staff that lost Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera and has questions everywhere. C. C. Sabathia allowed the most earned runs in the majors. Hiroki Kuroda, 39, fell apart down the stretch. Ivan Nova has struggled to be consistent. Michael Pineda has not thrown a major league pitch since 2011. In other words, Tanaka needs to be elite, right away, for the Yankees to have much of a chance. He would not label himself an ace, but he seems to share his new fans’ expectations.“ When I take the mound,” Tanaka said, “I feel like I like to win every single game.”