TAMPA, FLORIDA – As dozens of cameras recorded his every move and perhaps 150 media watched on a cool and breezy morning, Masahiro Tanaka slowly jogged four laps on the warning track around a back field following his first official workout with the New York Yankees.
The $155 million man looked gassed. He may pitch great, but Tanaka clearly was not born to run.
“I actually didn’t know I was going to run this much,” he said through a translator Saturday. “And I’m a little bit of a slow runner. But that part I really can’t help.”
The 25-year-old right-hander jogged onto the field with Hiroki Kuroda and played catch with his 39-year-old countryman, who is preparing for his seventh U.S. season. When it was time to throw his bullpen session, Tanaka took a mound on field No. 3 between Kuroda and ace CC Sabathia, with Ivan Nova at the far end.
Tanaka has quickly found a senpai (respected elder) to his kohai (protege).
“I feel very fortunate and very thankful that he is here,” Tanaka said. “He is a veteran here in the majors.”
Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last year and led the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to their first Japan Series title. His reception is similar to the one Hideki Matsui received 11 years ago after leaving the Yomiuri Giants to sign with the Yankees.
The Yankees built a tent behind third base for Matsui’s news conferences, and cameras lined both foul lines for the outfielder’s first batting practice, which was televised live in Japan.
Media crowded the path to field No. 3 when Tanaka emerged with Kuroda, and cameramen jostled for position in foul territory behind third base and in left field to capture his tossing in the outfield and the 32 pitches he threw in his second bullpen appearance since arriving in the U.S.
After the bullpen and fielding practice, he made the roughly 1.6-km run with Nova, Francisco Rondon and Danny Burawa.
It was Tanaka’s first time wearing the pants of the famous white pinstriped uniform — he also had on a dark blue Yankees batting practice jersey with white trim.
A couple of fans shouted “Tanaka-san!”
“Honestly, when I stepped out on the field today, I was very, very surprised as to how many media there were out there,” he said. “As a player, I feel very honored to get this much attention. Some of the fans were cheering today, and actually I was very happy to receive those cheers. But at the same time I understand that I haven’t given out any results on the field yet, so my focus is to train and go out there and try to get those results.”
Tanaka pitched to backup catcher Francisco Cervelli, while Sabathia threw to Brian McCann, the Yankees’ new starter. Cervelli didn’t think all the attention would become a distraction for the Tanaka.
“He’s not the only guy who makes a hundred million here,” Cervelli said. “They’ll be attention for a lot of people. Even me, I don’t make even a million, I got attention sometimes. You get used to it.”
Tanaka will have to adjust to the rhythm of Major League Baseball, where most starting pitchers have four days’ rest. In Japan, starting pitchers appear once a week. He said he was used to workouts of longer duration.
“Some of the bullpen numbers that I’ve heard that they throw in Japan, it’s pretty hard to work it over here every five days throwing 100 pitches in between a start,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
And there is that constant glare of the spotlight.
“I’m sure the practice part is the easy part of his day. It’s where he can just go do what he loves to do,” Girardi said. “Obviously the media that he has to handle before and after is going to be taxing probably at times, but he’s probably accustomed to it and understood when he signed here that was part of the deal.”
When his day was over, Tanaka sat in the pavilion and answered questions from the English-language reporters, then from the Japanese.
And what will be the lasting memory from his first day with his new team.
“Probably what I’ll remember,” he said, “is the four laps that we did at the end was pretty hard.”