David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
TAMPA, Fla. - The morning began with a briefing on the ground rules. With Masahiro Tanaka scheduled to throw his first bullpen session Saturday at the Steinbrenner Field complex, a member of the Yankees' media-relations staff explained that reporters would be limited to the gravel track just inside the fence.
Before anyone could think about cozying up to the bullpen itself, another team employee literally drew a line in the sand -- with his foot -- to create the edge of the boundary.
It was roughly 100 yards from where Tanaka threw to catcher Francisco Cervelli. That was our vantage point, more than 80 reporters penned in between the chain-link fence and the grassy no-man's-land separating Tanaka from a media horde that will follow him more closely than his extended family will for the next 71/2 months.
Remember, this was only the first official day of spring training. Just practice. But when Tanaka emerged from the tunnel into bright sunshine, with Hiroki Kuroda by his side, he entered a world that few players experience. One of constant surveillance in which nothing goes unnoticed.
Tanaka had an idea of what awaited him when he signed a seven-year, $155-million contract with the Yankees: the biggest star in Japan heading to the most famous team in the sport. But this went beyond his imagination.
"Honestly,'' he said through an interpreter, "when I stepped out on the field, I was very, very surprised as to how many media people were out there.''
It was a revealing admission by Tanaka, who so far has handled such over-the-top scrutiny well. But don't underestimate how difficult that can be. While the superstars are expected to take this megawatt attention in stride, imagine what it would be like to be in a similar situation.
Think about showing up at the office and having TV crews waiting to capture your walk from the car to the front door. They record your every move until your work is finished, and then they get to ask questions about what you did. In detail. Every day. Including the bad days. Detailing the failures.
Obviously, players such as Tanaka and Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are well compensated for their jobs, and this is all part of it. But they're still not robots, and some deal with the relentless heat of this spotlight better than others.
The Yankees' first try with a Japanese pitching star was the signing of Hideki Irabu, and he clashed with the media frequently. During spring training in 1998, Irabu snapped during one group interview session, grabbing a TV camera from a Japanese network and smashing a videotape.
Years later, Hideki Matsui attracted an even bigger crowd than Tanaka in his first Tampa days with the Yankees. Matsui was a media darling and embraced the exposure. Thrived in it.
Tanaka has been in the States for only a week, but we're getting the sense that all of this craziness won't be an issue for him. Even after struggling through the running portion of Saturday's workout -- Tanaka wore a somewhat pained expression during his four laps around the field -- he was good-natured in joking about it afterward.
"Actually, I didn't know that I was going to run this much,'' Tanaka said, smiling. "And I'm a little bit of a slow runner. But that part I really can't help.''
Every time Tanaka showed the hint of a smile, dozens of cameras clicked, a constant fluttering sound that echoed in the spacious tent-like structure where the Yankees held his interview. The only other person who answered questions in the tent Saturday was Joe Girardi. To put it in perspective, on Wednesday, Jeter's retirement news conference will get the tent treatment.
For Tanaka, this daily interaction -- which will exceed any other Yankee's -- is another step in his transition to the majors. Like pitching every fifth day, like adjusting to a larger baseball.
The Yankees currently have three team officials specifically assigned to Tanaka to help him with this process, which seems to be going smoothly.
"I'm sure the practice part is the easy part of his day, where he can just go do what he loves to do,'' Girardi said. "Obviously, the media he has to handle before and after is going to be taxing at times. But he's probably accustomed to it and understood when he signed here that was part of the deal.''
That part will get tougher. For now, it's about getting comfortable for Tanaka. And if the hardest thing for him is a few laps, he should be OK.