- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2014


There’s not much mystery in today’s world. We can watch outer space on our computers and ask a woman named Siri on our phones what is the meaning of life.

There are scouting reports on elementary school athletes. Football game films are there to break down on your tablet in your living room, just like the coaches.

You can argue that the biggest mystery today is that there is no mystery anymore.

And then the New York Yankees pay $155 million to a pitcher that most of America has never seen before, a hurler from a faraway land.

This is how legends begin – the tale of the 10-foot tall, 120 miles per hour pitcher from Japan who is unhittable.

Masahiro Tanaka is neither 10-feet tall, nor does he throw 120 miles per hour. But he did go 24-0 last year with a 1.27 ERA in Japan last year, and much of the baseball world here never saw one pitch.

So when he takes the mound at Yankee Stadium this season, he will be a wonderful mystery to American baseball fans, who will have already talked about his split-fingered fastball that one report claims may be “the best in the world.”

How will the great Tanaka fare when facing the great Miguel Cabrera? Or the darling of the jihadist sabermetricians, Mike Trout? How will the stats king do against the Japanese mystery?

We have seen glimpses of Tanaka in the World Baseball Classic, and if you really followed Japanese baseball, you could be very well versed in the career of Tanaka. But for most of the three million plus fans who will come to Yankee Stadium this season, and the millions more watching, he will be a great, well paid unknown.

Will he be Hideo Nomo, who lit the baseball world on fire with his tornado delivery for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, leading the National League in strikeouts and going on to pitch two no-hitters in his 12-year major league career?

Or will he be Daisuke Matsuzaka – “Dice-K” – the hurler with the “gyroball” pitch who the Boston Red Sox paid a record $51 million to his Japanese club, the Seibu Lions, just for the rights to negotiate with Dice-K, followed by a six-year $52 million contract and, overall, a major league career defined by disappointment and injury?

The Yankees – the most high-profile major league baseball franchise – have had a defining presence in Japan ever since the great Babe Ruth played there in a 1934 barnstorming tour, and several reports have indicated that Tanaka wanted to be a Yankee.

“They gave me the highest evaluation and are a world-famous team,” Tanaka told reporters Thursday at a press conference in Japan.

The contigent of Japanese reporters who cover the Yankees is larger than most press corps that cover many of the teams in American baseball.

According to Sports Illustrated, when Ruth arrived for that winter tour, “half a million Japanese were packed 40 deep on the avenue, screaming ‘banzai’ and ‘Rusu, Rusu, Rusu.’ More than 600 fans were hospitalized during the crush.”

The legend goes that when Japanese kamikaze pilots flew into targets during World War II, they would use Babe Ruth’s name in vain. So the Yankees have long represented the symbol of American baseball in Japan.

Their first dip in the Japanese baseball talent pool, though, was a disaster. The San Diego Padres had purchased the contract of the Masahiro Tanaka of his time – Hideki Irabu – in 1997 and turned out and traded the rights for Irabu to the Yankees for several players and $3 million. The Yankees signed Irabu to four-year, $12.8 million contract.

He was a flop – a well-publicized, embarrassing flop who owner George Steinbrenner called a “fat toad” and was traded two years later to the Montreal Expos. He was out of major league baseball in 2003, and sadly, in 2011, committed suicide in his Los Angeles home.

The next Japanese star in pinstripes had a far more successful career. Outfielder-designated hitter Hideki Matsui signed a three-year, $21 million contract with New York in 2002, and, playing seven seasons there, was a two-time All-Star and led the Yankees to the 2009 World Series championship, named Most Valuable Player of the series. Nicknamed “Godzilla,” he was one of the most popular players during his time with the Yankees, and reportedly was instrumental in recruiting Tanaka for the team.

The biggest Japanese star to play baseball in America remains Ichiro Suzuki, the future Hall of Fame outfielder who spent 12 years with the Nintendo-owned Seattle Mariners from 2001 to 2012, batting .322 with 2,533 hits over that span, named to seven All-Star teams. Suzuki, 40, was traded to the Yankees in the middle of the 2012 season and will be Tanaka’s teammate.

The last Japanese pitching mystery, Yu Darvish, signed with the Texas Rangers in 2012 after the Rangers paid $51.7 million to the Nippon Ham Fighters for the rights to sign Darvish, and then gave the Japanese hurler a six-year, $60 million contract. Darvish delivered with two outstanding seasons in Texas – a record of 29-18 and 498 strikeouts in 401 innings pitched. His success may have paved the way for Tanaka.

There is no mystery why the Yankees signed Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract, which, at $22.14 million per year, is the fifth largest deal ever given to a pitcher, and obviously the most ever paid for a pitcher who has never thrown a pitch in the major leagues. New York also paid Tanaka’s Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, a $20 million “posting” fee.

The Yankees finished out of the playoffs last season for only the second time since 1995, and that is unacceptable in Yankeeland. They’ve signed nine free agents, including All Star players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, to a total of $471 million.

“Anybody that questioned our commitment to winning is going to have to question themselves,” Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner told the Associated Press.

The mystery though, is what have the Yankees committed to – a legend or a bust?

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,”noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com

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