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The media get ready for open season on Tanaka

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

“In the Spring,” wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his famous poem “Locksley Hall,” “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”

In Japan, men’s springtime fancies are equally likely to turn to thoughts of baseball. And if the frequency of articles about the sport in Japan’s weeklies and tabloids are any indication, the New York Yankees’ newest Japanese acquisition, pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, will be the focus of blanket media coverage both on and off the field.

The Yankees acquired Tanaka for a princely sum from the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles after he posted a spectacular record last season of 24 wins and no losses, leading his team to its first-ever victory in the Japan Series last November. At age 25, he has a long and lucrative baseball career ahead of him.

For this reason, with the possible exception of a small number of actors, socialites, aristocrats and other celebrities, few human beings on the planet are expected to be subjected to such close media scrutiny. For the next seven months, the Japanese press contingent will sift through Tanaka’s public and private life for snippets of gossip. His every utterance will be recorded, and reporters will besiege his teammates in search of nuggets of newsworthy information.

And even when there’s no news to report, the media is not above use of titillating headlines to help sell papers. The April 16 back cover of tabloid newspaper Nikkan Gendai was emblazoned with a huge yellow headline reading “Will ‘Ma-kun’ get divorced?”

“The possibility has been raised that Masahiro Tanaka will be ‘divorced,’ ” says the story’s lead-in. But then it clarifies the innuendo by explaining, “This does not have anything to do with divorcing his wife, Mai. Rather, he may split up with his battery mate, the Yankees’ regular catcher Brian McCann.”

The article points out that in Tanaka’s first two outings at the start of the regular season, he was hit hard by the leadoff batters, and the paper suggests the two players are having problems “synchronizing their breathing.”

“In the dugout, Tanaka and McCann were seen with the team’s Japanese interpreter having a heated discussion,” a New York-based reporter told Nikkan Gendai. “I suppose Tanaka was imploring McCann to let him pitch at his own pace, relying mainly on fastballs.”

Yusuke Suzumura, secretary-general of the Tokyo-based Association of American Baseball Research, says:”There’s a particularly strong trend recently to bring in catchers (such as McCann) who are powerful hitters. For pitchers like Tanaka who rely on good control and a mixture of different pitches, this might not be enough.

“Seeing him frequently shake his head and wave off the catcher’s instructions suggests he may feel he’s got to be the one who decides what to throw.”

Shukan Bunshun (April 17), meanwhile, is concerned over Tanaka’s choice of a public relations person in New York — a man identified only as “Mr. A.” This person had previously worked for Tanaka’s old team, the Rakuten Eagles, but is described as a poor English speaker who, according to an unnamed sportswriter, “throws a baseball like a girl.”

The article also conveyed fears that Tanaka’s wife, Mai, who will be expected to team up with other Yankees’ wives on visits to underprivileged children and auctions for charity, may be the target of petty sniping by her peers.

Shukan Post (April 25) took it upon itself to advise Tanaka to learn from the mistakes of other Japanese players who preceded him, and ran a list of “15 Major League Taboos” that he should take pains to avoid.

Take the pillows in American hotels, which tend to be too soft for Japanese. Noting that the Texas Rangers’ Yu Darvish had developed a stiff neck last month causing him to be placed on the disabled list, Tanaka was advised to bring his own pillow along with him while the team is on the road. He was also warned against picking up a case of athlete’s foot by treading barefoot in locker rooms and showers. To avoid a persistent itch, he’s advised to emulate former Yankee star Hideki Matsui by wearing socks with independent sheaths for each toe.

While raw oysters and sushi are popular in New York, the article warned Tanaka of the possible ill-effects of consuming raw seafood — except in the most reliable establishments. Related to this was a caveat about developing hemorrhoids; for proper hygiene Tanaka was strongly urged to install a Toto washlet in his new residence; unfortunately the U.S. lags behind Japan in adoption of bidet-type toilets, so discomforts may lurk down the road.

Fifteenth on the list of taboos was a warning about patronizing establishments with piano bars. It seems that Japanese females who are in the U.S. for study or with the ambition of performing as a dancer in a Broadway musical are known to frequent such night spots, and the last thing the happily married Tanaka needs is to be captured in the company of such a female by the lens of a predatory paparazzo.

Based on analysis and “realistic expectations,” sports author Akira Hiroo goes out on a limb and predicts in Shukan Post that Tanaka will post a respectable, but hardly spectacular, record of 11 wins and nine losses in his first season with the Yankees.