Masahiro Tanaka, Matt Harvey have a Cooperstown connection
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It was a crisp late summer day in picturesque Cooperstown, N.Y.
Everyone who was there remembers that detail, even if they don't remember the exact date: Aug. 31, 2006.
Two baseball games took place that day at Doubleday Field, in the shadow of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a doubleheader between the Japanese national under-18 team and a cobbled-together American squad made up of top high school players from the Northeast.
The first pitch of the day was thrown by a 17-year-old from New London, Conn.
His name was Matt Harvey.
The last pitch of the day was thrown by a 17-year-old from Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.
His name was Masahiro Tanaka.
Until a few weeks ago, neither of them was aware the other had been there. And only Tanaka remembered that his last pitch ended up as a walk-off home run for the U.S. team.
It was really quite a day, for many reasons. Everyone who was there -- including then-Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey -- still talks about it, mostly to each other.
But no one kept score -- not even the Hall of Fame librarian, who said he attended the games but didn't keep a scorecard, as it wasn't an official Hall event and there were no rosters.
There isn't agreement on the final scores. Japan won the opener, 5-1 or 4-2 or 3-1. The U.S. team took Game 2 in dramatic fashion, 2-1. Or 3-2.
In a way, that all makes it better. Because Aug. 31, 2006, lives on in memory more than it does on paper.
Was that really Harvey?
"Really? He was the starting pitcher?"
Masahiro Tanaka's eyes shot open last weekend as the question about Harvey, the injured Mets ace, was translated for him at the Yankees' spring training camp in Tampa, Fla.
"I remember someone throwing the ball really hard," said Tanaka, the Yankees' $155-million free-agent signee. "Maybe that was him."
It was him. Unlike Tanaka, who was not the biggest star on the Japanese team and didn't pitch until late in the second game, Harvey was the best player on the American squad assembled by then-Cincinnati Reds scout Jason Baker and coached by Baker and Red Sox scout Ray Fagnant.
The players were selected for what was called "The Japan/America Goodwill Series XVII."
"We weren't sure exactly who was going to be able to make it," said Baker, now the Northeast cross-checker for the Los Angeles Angels. "We knew Matt Harvey had a good chance of making it and we planned to start him in Game 1."
At the time, Harvey was the pride of Fitch Senior High School in Groton, Conn., where he pitched and played first base for his father, Ed.
Heading into his senior season, Harvey was a well-known prospect with a 97-mph fastball. He spent the summer of '06 touring the country, throwing in about "20 to 25" tournaments, according to his father. So you'll have to forgive Matt if he doesn't remember exactly how he pitched at Doubleday Field, though the consensus is he threw three scoreless innings.
"The Japanese were making a big deal about this kid who came out of high school and was throwing 97," Baker said. "I do remember he went through the order pretty good the first two innings. In the third inning, he walked a few guys and they got the bases loaded and he ended up getting a strikeout and something else and got out of it."
Said Ed Harvey: "I think he pitched pretty well. I think they had a couple of scratch hits. He always struck guys out, but I don't remember how many. I'm pretty sure he had a pretty good outing."
Matt Harvey, earlier this month at spring training in Port St. Lucie, said: "I don't remember that much. I remember going up there with my parents. Just really excited because it was obviously my first time going up there. So obviously, I was really excited about that opportunity and getting to play on that field."
Did Harvey meet Tanaka? He did not. He wishes he had. He said it was "cool" to learn nearly eight years later that Tanaka was there at the same time he was.
"It was so quick," Harvey said. "I wish I had paid more attention to all those things, but at the time, I was just playing baseball. I was excited about the places that I had been able to go and travel to. It was kind of just soaking up the atmosphere rather than really paying attention to who we were playing against, which I definitely regret now, looking back."
Harvey, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and will miss the 2014 Subway Series games with the Yankees in May, plans to be back well before next year's edition.
"As a Mets pitcher, you look at the new Yankee guy," he said. "Not just the contract he signed, but how successful he's been in Japan. It's pretty incredible. Obviously, I'm hoping to get back sooner rather than later so I can face him. Have some battles from then on."
Ace for another day
Tanaka didn't start Game 1 because he wasn't the Japanese team's most famous pitcher. That honor went to righthander Yuki Saito, who was nicknamed "The Handkerchief Prince" for using a blue cloth to wipe his face while pitching.
Earlier that summer, Saito faced off with Tanaka in Japan's national high school championships, which are at least the equivalent of March Madness in the United States. Their battles were the stuff of legend, but Saito's team won and he struck out Tanaka for the final out of the deciding game.
"I remember that guy, Saito," Harvey said. "I remember that name."
The Handkerchief Prince was trailed by a retinue of 40 or so Japanese media members, complete with satellite trucks. A day earlier, the Japanese team met at Yankee Stadium with then-Yankees star Hideki Matsui.
The American media contingent was a round number: zero. And there was one scout in the stands: Matt Hyde, who was in his first year with the Yankees.
"First of all, it was a postcard-perfect day in Cooperstown," Hyde said. "It couldn't have been nicer. Everything that you hear about Cooperstown, it couldn't have been more perfect. I show up, and there was a throng of Japanese media. I had boom mics in my face, I had cameras three feet away from me. It was as if I was some celebrity. I was the only scout there, so it was like a feeding frenzy. It really was so amazing to me to see there was so much media attention for a kid who was in high school in Japan and here we have Matt Harvey and the rest of the crew, who are no slouches in their own right."
Hyde said his primary focus was to file reports on the Americans he had been following all summer. He took notes on the Japanese players. One stood out: a well-built righthander who entered Game 2 in the ninth inning of a 1-1 game. (Or it may have been an inning earlier; a photo from the Hall of Fame's archives shows Tanaka warming up with the scoreboard behind him indicating the eighth inning.)
"The thing that stood out was this guy pitching for them was extremely polished, extremely poised, extremely professional," Hyde said. "It was fun to watch just from a pure baseball standpoint. I said, 'My goodness, there aren't too many high school guys who can pitch like this guy can pitch.' And he's going up against guys who are familiar to me, one of them being Matt Harvey."
Eight years later, the Yankees signed Tanaka for a total outlay of $175 million, including a $20-million posting fee. At Tanaka's introductory news conference last month, general manager Brian Cashman said the team had been scouting him "since 2007."
He was a year off. But Cashman said last week he had no memory of the Yankees scouting Tanaka at Cooperstown. Hyde isn't taking credit for "discovering" Tanaka back then.
"That would be a great story, wouldn't it?" Hyde said. "You kind of flash forward to today and we're in the hunt to try to sign him, I'm thinking back and I'm going, 'Holy cow, you know what?' Bob Williams sent me an email and asked, "Do you remember seeing Tanaka at Cooperstown?' I went, 'Holy [expletive], that was Tanaka!' Then I called Ray Fagnant and said, 'Can you believe it?' Because he stood out. He stood out. There's no doubt."
Home run to remember
What does Tanaka remember about his appearance? The answer is as straight as a fastball that ends up over the rightfield fence to end an international showcase doubleheader.
"That one of the batters hit a home run off of me to end the game," he said. "I came into the game in the ninth inning and what happened was it was still a tie game after I finished the ninth inning. Words came out that we were going to do this game until we finished it up. So I had to throw another inning and that's when the home run came up. I became the losing pitcher."
The home run was hit by an outfielder from Pennsauken, N.J., named Chris Berroa, who later was an 11th-round draft pick in 2008 of the Oakland A's. Berroa has been out of professional baseball since a one-game stint with the independent Camden Riversharks in 2012.
"I remember that like it was yesterday. I really do," Berroa said last week. "I remember him throwing two fastballs. A fastball inside and then the second one I hit a home run to the opposite field. It was the best memory I've ever had playing baseball."
Berroa, who got an invitation to the next stop on the Goodwill Series tour in Los Angeles, said he learned Tanaka's name when he socialized with the Japanese players on that leg of the tour (Tanaka recently said he did not remember the name of the player who homered off him). When Tanaka signed with the Yankees, Berroa felt more than just a flicker of memory: The home run, the trip around the bases and the postgame interviews with the Japanese media all came flooding back to the 25-year-old.
"I'm very well known in Japan. Everyone knows who I am," he said. "Honestly, it brought tears to my eyes. No one today could believe it was me -- that I hit a walk-off off of the phenom. It was just an unbelievable experience."
In Los Angeles, a team of mostly West Coast high school players faced the Japanese at USC before the Japanese players went back home. Harvey wasn't part of the USC games. Tanaka was, but he said he doesn't remember how he pitched, other than "I was getting a lot of strikeouts with my slider on that particular trip."
Of the trip to Cooperstown, Tanaka said: "During that time, I didn't know much about Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame being there. But come to think of it now, I was blessed to have that experience to go there and play there."
Tanaka's only other visit to New York was when he appeared at Yankee Stadium after signing with the Yankees. His next will be in the home opener April 7.
Out of stands, onto field
For the organizers and especially the Cooperstown locals who were there that day, Aug. 31, 2006, isn't remembered most vividly for Harvey or Tanaka or "The Handkerchief Prince." It's remembered first for the catcher who came out of the stands.
U.S. catcher Devin Mesoraco, who is now with the Cincinnati Reds, injured his thumb catching a pitch in Game 1 and was done for the day. (Some remember Harvey throwing the pitch, but Mesoraco said last week it was top Red Sox prospect Anthony Ranaudo.)
"We didn't have another catcher," said Fagnant, the Red Sox scout. "I kid Jason to this day -- you can't do a doubleheader with 14 pitchers and one catcher -- so somebody comes up to me and says, 'Ray, there's a kid in the stands that can catch.' I said, 'OK, we got a kid out there throwing 95 miles per hour and we're playing the Japanese national team.' "
The kid was 16-year-old Phil Pohl, whom Fagnant had scouted four days earlier in Lowell, Mass. Pohl was the catcher for the Cooperstown Central High School team. Suiting up with Mesoraco's spare equipment -- "his mom gave it to me," Pohl said -- while his father raced home to get his gear, Pohl caught the rest of Game 1 and all of Game 2 and even doubled in the nightcap.
And a local legend was born.
"It was like an old-time movie," Williams said. " 'I can catch!' "
Hyde, the Yankees scout, said, "It was just an amazing, 'Field of Dreams'-type moment."
Pohl later was drafted out of high school but went to Clemson. He was drafted again by Oakland in the 28th round in 2012 and is climbing the ladder in the A's system after spending last season in Class A.
"It was a pretty cool and a pretty unique experience for me," Pohl said from the A's spring training camp in Arizona.
Told that he may have faced Tanaka in the second game, Pohl said: "Was that who it was? That's unbelievable. News to me. Wow."