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Eagles’ future largely forgotten amidst race to land Tanaka

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Watching the flow of a news cycle can be interesting at times.

In an era of 24-hour media and instant gratification, the ebb and flow of what’s hot and what’s not is as unforgiving as the tide, and it doesn’t take much for the what-nots to be swept out into the sea in favor of something new and fresh.

Until a few days ago, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were white hot, back when they had something to capture the public’s interest. Now that pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has been posted, the Eagles have nothing left to give.

So while there are, and will continue to be, any number of stories about how Tanaka will adapt to life in MLB along with countless theories about which team he’ll play for and why, the Eagles are left to fade silently into the background, without their biggest star or the reward they expected to come from his posting.

The news cycle has moved on, lacking even a cursory glance back at the Eagles, now relegated to a $20 million footnote in the story and left picking up the pieces after doing right by their star and wrong by their own bottom line — a byproduct of being put in what was essentially a no-win situation by MLB and the other 11 NPB clubs.

Tanaka was more than simply the Eagles’ ace. With Yu Darvish gone, he’d assumed the unofficial title of “Japan’s ace,” though one could argue he took that crown by force with his Sawamura-Award-winning campaign in 2011 while Darvish was still in Sapporo.

The Eagles also gave fans something to rally around as Tohoku pieced itself back together (a job still far from done) and Tanaka was the focal point of their affection with the way he dominated Japanese baseball, going 53-9 from 2011-13.

While Hisashi Iwakuma threw the fledging club a life preserver in 2005, when he spurned the Orix Buffaloes to play for the expansion Eagles, Tanaka took the baton and led the team to the finish line after Iwakuma left for the majors.

“He’s been a core member of the team in the last seven years and truly put up the best (numbers) he could,” Rakuten president Yozo Tachibana said last week during the news conference announcing the Eagles would post Tanaka. “Our players, manager, coaches . . . and of course our fans, I believe that they all will have to go through sad feelings, but he’s such a big presence. We just hope he will be successful (in MLB), representing Tohoku and Japan.”

Most of the news lately, in both Japan and the U.S., has centered on Tanaka’s future, but while MLB suitors line up for the Tanaka sweepstakes, Rakuten has a team to put together and a Japan Series title to defend.

“We, Rakuten, will win another Japan Series title,” Tachibana said later in that same news conference. “We promise.”

Recent history, at least, bodes well for the Eagles. The Seibu Lions won the Japan Series one season after posting Daisuke Matsuzaka, while the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters reached the title series the same year Darvish signed on with the Texas Rangers.

Rakuten didn’t cease to exist when it agreed to post Tanaka.

The Eagles have to look toward the future, and even as the spotlight recedes, the team is losing its most reliable pitcher (doesn’t get much more reliable than 24-0) and a huge part of its identity.

With or without (bet on without), Tanaka, Rakuten begins its title defense in 91 days.

They’ll be an aside again next month when/if Tanaka finally signs and they get $20 million for their troubles, but other than that, the news cycle has moved on. The Eagles are in the process of doing the same.