David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991. Show More
So far, we know a few things about Masahiro Tanaka. He finished 24-0 last season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and his idea of extra leg room on a transcontinental flight calls for using a 787 Dreamliner as a personal dog run.
Throw in a pop-star wife, and the Yankees already have the makings of a great TV show. As the team announced at Tuesday's introductory news conference at the Stadium, it was being seen by a "worldwide" audience -- exclusively on YES, of course.
This is the entertainment business, and Tanaka is bringing more than his nasty splitter to the States. He is hugely popular in baseball-crazy Japan, and that rock-star status was only enhanced by Tanaka's renting a JAL jumbo jet the way the rest of us would commandeer a Dodge Caravan from the Hertz lot.
When Brian Cashman stood at the podium and described the event as "Yankee big . . . Steinbrenner big," he seemed to be talking more about the pageantry, the pomp and circumstance of adding Japan's pre-eminent ace. The Yankees love the idea of Masahiro Tanaka, of what he could be in the majors. They paid him $155 million for it -- plus a $20-million posting fee.
But none of us is 100 percent sure how Tanaka will turn out here, and Cashman was bold enough to admit that later in a downstairs conference room, away from the crush of TV cameras. This is an educated guess, based on endless loops of scouting video and eyewitness accounts. A few days earlier, Cashman referred to Tanaka as a potential No. 3 starter -- setting off alarm bells -- but he didn't back off the statement when pressed again Tuesday.
"Better to have an honest, realistic dialogue with your fans," Cashman said. "I think the adjustments are real, and as excited as we are to have him, and as much as we need a player of his capabilities, I want to make sure that people understand how difficult this game is over here.
"There should be expectations of growing pains, so I just want to make sure to remind everybody -- even though they might not want to hear it."
In doing so, Cashman basically went rogue, veering sharply from the message delivered by principal owner Hal Steinbrenner and team president Randy Levine. Listening to those two, Tanaka had them at hello, and they weren't thinking of the possibility -- however remote -- that Tanaka might struggle with some of the same transition problems that have sidetracked other Japanese pitchers.
"He's been on a big stage over there," Steinbrenner said, "and not every Japanese player that's come over here has been on the big stage, in the big games, as much as him. I'm not worried about him here."
Levine talked about Tanaka's "poise" and "grace" in front of the largest media gathering in the Bronx since the one for Hideki Matsui in 2003. Tanaka drew comparisons to Matsui, who handled his Yankees fame as well as anyone, and Cashman also mentioned a "presence" similar to the unflappable El Duque.
It's a good start, and Tanaka could live up to that early hype. But Tuesday's conversations also brought up more infamous names, such as Kei Igawa and the late Hideki Irabu. The Yankees' signing of the overmatched Igawa was a regrettable, knee-jerk reaction to the Red Sox's grabbing of Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Irabu had the unfortunate advance billing as the "Nolan Ryan of Japan."
Both wilted in New York, and when Cashman was asked how such mistakes can be avoided in 2014, he pointed to a better system now used to evaluate international players. But it's not foolproof.
"There are some things that help close the gap, but there's still a gap," he said. "There's still a leap of faith after you make an informed decision."
Joe Girardi said pitching every fifth day will be Tanaka's greatest challenge, a different schedule than he was accustomed to in Japan. Tanaka said the baseball used in the majors -- which is larger and more slick -- will take time to get used to.
But we already know Tanaka is a problem solver. When he needed a flight to the States, he didn't worry about reserving a seat -- he just booked the entire plane. That's a player who thinks big enough for the Bronx.