New York will have plenty of time to dissect Masahiro Tanaka the pitcher. Tuesday’s was Gotham’s first opportunity to learn about Tanaka the person directly from the man himself.
Tanaka opened a well-attended introductory news conference at Yankee Stadium by smiling and saying in English, “Hello. My name is Masahiro Tanaka. I’m very happy to be a Yankee.”
With that, American baseball fans — and Japanese fans watching at 3 a.m. Tokyo time — got to see a little of the personality Yankees executives say helped sway them to sign the 25-year-old right-hander for seven years and $155 million (plus a $20 million posting fee).
“My impression is he’s all business when he has to be,” general manager Brian Cashman said later. “But my impression also is that he’s got some personality; he’s got some color to him. I think he’s got a sense of humor that I think his teammates will enjoy when it’s not all business. That’s my impression. But I hardly know him.”
Cashman opened the session by saying, “This is Yankee big. This is Steinbrenner big.”
But other than Tanaka’s English greeting, the rest of the news conference — which was trumpeted by the Yankees as their biggest since they introduced Tanaka’s countryman Hideki Matsui at a Times Square hotel in 2003 — was borderline tedious. Tanaka kept that sense of humor under wraps in a series of short answers in Japanese that were translated.
So in many ways, we still hardly know Tanaka, either.
Tuesday’s biggest revelation may have been that Tanaka sampled “grocery store” sushi upon arrival in New York on Monday after a jumbo-jet flight that was anything but inexpensive.
According to a Japanese media report that quickly went global, Tanaka chartered a 200-seat 787 Dreamliner from Japan Airlines for $195,000 for himself, his wife, three other people and the couple’s toy poodle — an attention-grabbing tidbit that made the news conference more than the usual dog-and-pony show for a Yankees’ free-agent signing.
Even with the lavish travel outlay, Tanaka said he was delayed more than eight hours by a snowstorm in Japan and slept for most of the flight. His reasoning for the expensive ride? Commitment to his craft.
“The reason why I chartered was just thought about my conditioning,” Tanaka said through a translator. “Just wanted to get here in the best position possible.”
Asked why he chose the 200-seat plane, Tanaka said: “There wasn’t many choices of planes that we could choose from. That’s basically why.”
Tanaka is used to this type of scrutiny. Since high school, he has been a rock star in Japan (and his wife is an actual pop star in that country). That’s why there were an estimated 100 media credentials issued to Japanese reporters in addition to the 100 or so for American journalists.
Many of those journalists will now follow Tanaka to Tampa, Fla., where he will begin training for his first Yankees season. There the scrutiny will quickly turn from Tanaka’s choice of transportation to how he performs against big-league hitters.
The Yankees, of course, hope very well. Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten last season, leading to a spirited bidding war that the Yankees won with the highest offer.
Last week, Cashman said Tanaka could be a “solid No. 3” starter. He admitted Tuesday that was an effort to tamp down expectations.
“We could be getting more than a 3,” Cashman said. “Maybe it’s a 2. Maybe it’s even a 1 at some point.”
Tanaka did win some points for honesty when asked if he had a team in mind before the bidding process began in December. It was the perfect opportunity to say how he always wanted to be a Yankee and wax about how the lure of the pinstripes drove him to the Bronx. But he didn’t.
“Actually, I wasn’t really specifically looking to go to one team,” Tanaka said. “I looked at the teams equally and basically made my decision.”
Asked what his No. 1 goal was, Tanaka said: “To win the world championship.”
At least that much Yankees fans know. And have to like.