NEW YORK – The latest high-priced addition to the New York Yankees stood on the dais in front of a large news conference, put on his pinstriped jersey with No. 19 and smiled.
“Hello. My name is Masahiro Tanaka,” he said slowly in English. “I’m very happy to be a Yankee.”
After chartering a Boeing 787 Dreamliner for his trip from Tokyo to New York, the 25-year-old right-hander with the $155 million, seven-year contract was presented Tuesday not in the news conference room downstairs at Yankee Stadium, but in the Legends Suite Club, where the high rollers congregate on game days.
Yankees spokesman Jason Zillo concluded the team’s latest Pacific overture drew New York’s most-attended news conference since Hideki Matsui was introduced in January 2003.
Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said obtaining Tanaka was worth the economic pain of exceeding the $189 million luxury tax threshold New York had hoped to stay under.
“We needed another starter, and when we do things, we try to do them right,” Steinbrenner said. “And this guy, he’s tough. He’s got tremendous ability. We all know that. And he’s going to be very exciting to watch. And he’s going to be great for the team, a great teammate. And $189 (million) or not, we wanted a good quality starter, and we got it.”
Tanaka chartered a Japan Airlines plane, which seats about 200, for the trans-Pacific trip to New York, reportedly costing about $200,000. There were just five passengers on the plane, including his pop star wife Mai Satoda, plus their poodle Haru. The flight, originally scheduled to depart at noon, was delayed many hours by a snowstorm.
“There weren’t many choices of planes,” he said through a translator when asked about the big jet.
And a lengthy commercial trip could have been uncomfortable.
“I thought about my conditioning, just wanted to get here in the best condition possible,” he said.
For his first meal in New York, he ventured outside his room at the Mandarin Oriental hotel overlooking Central Park.
“I ate sushi,” he said, “which I bought at a grocery store nearby.”
New York, which also added Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran during the offseason, figures to have a big following in Japan this year. Tanaka joins pitcher Hiroki Kuroda and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki on the roster, and reliever Yoshinori Tateyama will be at spring training with a minor league contract.
“This would make the Boss proud,” general manager Brian Cashman said in a reference to late owner George Steinbrenner. “The Yankees obviously are about always trying to acquire the best talent and a collection of talent that can compete for a championship, but he also liked a lot of attention, and this certainly represents a lot of attention. So this is Yankee big. This is Steinbrenner big.”
Tanaka was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last year, leading the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to the Japan Series title. That left him with a 99-35 record and a 2.30 ERA in Japan, where he had 53 complete games in 172 starts.
New York had one of the most successful Japanese players in the major leagues in outfielder Matsui, the 2009 World Series MVP. And the Yankees experienced costly flops with pitchers Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa.
Manager Joe Girardi was the catcher behind the plate for Irabu’s debut in 1997.
“They feel a little bit more weight of representing their country than maybe players that are here on an everyday basis, because they kind of pave the way for the next guy and then the next guy,” he said.
Girardi’s advice: “Don’t feel like you have to live up to the contract.”
On a tour of the U.S. with a Japanese high school all-star team in 2006, Tanaka met Matsui when one of the young pitcher’s games was rained out. During the offseason, he spoke briefly by telephone with Matsui about his pending decision.
New York appealed to Tanaka’s desire to pitch on the biggest stage.
“This is where you need to be. A great star. The biggest franchise. The biggest brand. The biggest city,” Yankees President Randy Levine remembered saying during the team’s pitch session with the player on Jan. 8 in Beverly Hills, Calif. “He said some other teams he had met with wanted him to transition in, and he didn’t like that. He wanted to take the ball on Day One, and that told us a lot about him.”
Tanaka sounded prepared for the Yankees’ win-or-else mentality.
“I’ve heard that this place is — it could be very harsh to you at times,” he said. “Just wanted to put myself, though, in this environment and try to see where I can get to with my ability.”
Cashman is trying to lower expectations, saying Tanaka will slot in as No. 3 in the rotation behind CC Sabathia and Kuroda.
“We could be getting more than a three. Maybe it’s a two. Maybe it’s even a one at some point,” Cashman said. “I think that the adjustments are real, and as excited as we are to have and as much as we need a player of his capabilities, I want to make sure that people understand how difficult this game is over here and that there should be expectations of growing pains.”