Even after Masahiro Tanaka began playing for the New York Yankees, it wasn’t uncommon to see him working out with a few of his former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates — some of whom would don Yankees hats — in Sendai during the offseason.
Tanaka spent seven seasons with New York, but his winter sojourns to Sendai made it feel as if he was never that far removed from Rakuten or Tohoku. And the seedlings planted during those training sessions reached full bloom Saturday, with an introductory news conference to officially welcome Tanaka back into the nest.
“I’m very excited,” Tanaka said as he sat alongside team owner Hiroshi Mikitani, president Yozo Tachibana and manager and GM Kazuhisa Ishii. “I’m going to throw in front of everyone again, in front of Japanese baseball fans; I can barely contain myself. I hope I can show everyone how I’ve grown.”
Tanaka’s return helps both him and the team, and is an indictment of another free agency period during which the MLB hot stove has been barely warm enough to fry an egg.
Tanaka was good in MLB. He won 78 games and posted a 3.74 ERA and 1.13 walks plus hits per innings pitched over 1,054⅓ innings. He won five games in the postseason and was a two-time All-Star.
But he reached free agency at an unlucky time to be seeking a contract. MLB owners had been penny-pinching even before COVID-19, and the revenue losses the virus caused only made them draw their purse strings tighter.
Tanaka wasn’t the only big-name free agent to languish on the market, with NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer still unsigned.
Putting economic concerns aside, there’s still uncertainty about how another season amid a pandemic will play out and how life in North America will be affected.
Given that, the Eagles threw their hat in the ring and offered their former ace a safe haven.
“I think it’s a difficult business environment in the sports world,” Tachibana said during the news conference. “Ishii-GM and myself discussed it amongst ourselves and then we took it up to Mr. Mikitani.
“’Absolutely try to get him,’ is what I was told.”
While Tanaka didn’t get a new MLB deal, he found a good time to return to Japan. The 32-year-old said he’d been looking to return to the country — and to Rakuten — at some point anyway, and wanted to do so before it was too late in his career.
This year is also the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Tohoku in March 2011, which adds special meaning to his choice to return now. Tanaka saw the impact of the tragedy first hand, and, as much as an athlete can, helped to inspire the region — providing a brief respite with a historic 2013 campaign in which he went 24-0 and led the Eagles to their only Japan Series title.
Tanaka benefits by being able to come home and pitch in a comfortable, familiar environment — and reportedly be the highest paid player in NPB — and can survey the scene in MLB in a year’s time. For Tanaka, who said there was unfinished business, all doors remain open. He may even get a chance to wash away the bitter taste of the Beijing Olympics — where Japan finished fourth — if the Tokyo Games take place and he helps Japan win gold on home soil.
Rakuten, meanwhile, gets a player who can help win games on the field and comes with a massive amount of star power and the ability to move merchandise.
Everyone was all smiles on Saturday, but the fact is Tanaka should still be in the majors. The pandemic has hurt revenues, yes, but allowing a player like Tanaka to slip through the cracks reeks of owners being cheap.
Even with new pitchers Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, the Yankees probably could use Tanaka. He went to New York in 2014 on a seven-year, $155 million deal and played well. He said on Saturday his first thought was to re-sign and run it back with New York, before realizing the club was moving in a different direction.
“He performed to that contract,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said during an interview in a video posted to the YES Network’s Twitter account. “He came over here wanting to compete. He was a great teammate and he was a great Yankee.”
That is, of course, high praise from the team that didn’t bring Tanaka back.
MLB’s loss, however, is now NPB’s gain.
At the end of his news conference Saturday, Tanaka slipped into a white No. 18 Rakuten uniform. He wore the number in his first seven years with the team and it was kept vacant for the seven years he was gone.
He smiled and turned his back to the cameras as he slipped it on. When he turned around, in Eagles colors once more, it almost was like he’d never left.
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