The timing was right for Masahiro Tanaka.
In 2013, he led the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to a Japan Series title that was about more than baseball to a region still reeling two years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that hit in March 2011.
With the 10th anniversary of that tragedy approaching and Tanaka in search of a new team after seven MLB seasons, it seemed like the perfect time to come home to Tohoku and the Eagles.
“Ten years after the earthquake, I was in the position of being a free agent for the first time and being able to select a team,” Tanaka said. “I think the number 10 represents good timing for me.”
Tanaka returned to NPB and Rakuten with an introductory news conference on Saturday at a Tokyo hotel. He arrived wearing a blue suit and wrapped things up later in a white Eagles No. 18 uniform, flashing the boyish charm and easy smile that helped endear him to NPB fans in the first place as he giggled through a photo session.
Tanaka’s return, which has been celebrated in Tohoku and big news in Japan in general, could be short-lived. He has a two-year deal, but can also go over his options after this season.
He made it clear, however, he doesn’t have one foot out the door.
“I really want to win the title,” Tanaka said. “I don’t think I can have success in this world with half-hearted feelings, so I really want to fight with everything I have.”
Tanaka returns to Rakuten after seven seasons with the New York Yankees, for whom he was 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA in 174 appearances. He was also 5-4 with a 3.33 ERA in 10 playoff starts. This season was the final year of the $155 million contract he signed with the club in 2014.
“When I became a free agent, honestly I wanted to sign another contract with Yankees and play there,” Tanaka said. “Then as I heard different things, I thought I might have to take a different road and considered various things.”
Playing somewhere where he could be comfortable was a major factor in his search.
“For me, No. 1 was what kind of baseball do you want to play, what kind of environment do you want to be in,” Tanaka said.
Being back in NPB gives Tanaka a chance to play for Japan at the postponed Tokyo Olympics this summer. Had the games taken place last year as planned — before being derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic — Tanaka would not have been able to participate, as MLB wasn’t planning to send players to Tokyo.
“There’s a chance if I’m chosen,” Tanaka said. “There’s no reason to say no. I want to play. The last time I played was at the Beijing Olympics and it wasn’t a good result. Since baseball is going to be gone from the Olympic competition and this is going to be held in my home country, I want to win a gold medal.”
Tanaka was 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA in 175 games for Rakuten from 2007 to 2013. His next victory will make him the first to reach 100 wins with the club. He ended what’s now his first stint with the team by going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and 183 strikeouts while leading the Eagles to their first-ever pennant in 2013. He’d later record the final out in Game 7 of the Japan Series.
“He’s a special player,” Eagles manager and GM Kazuhisa Ishii said.
Tanaka returns to a league where he’ll have to contend with a dynasty in Fukuoka and a host of unfamiliar players.
“I’ve been gone for seven years and I know a lot of good batters have come up during that time,” he said. “I know there are a lot of good players.”
Tanaka will playing for a first-time manager in Ishii, a former MLB pitcher himself.
“He pitched in America as well, so he’s been in my position,” Tanaka said, adding he’ll be asking Ishii for advice.
Even in a league where a lot has changed, Tanaka will cut a familiar figure on the mound in the No. 18 that’s been left vacant since he departed for North America in 2013.
“I think the Tohoku fans have been waiting for this,” owner Hiroshi Mikitani said.
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