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For Masahiro Tanaka, this is about much more than baseball

Masahiro Tanaka looks on during batting practice before

Masahiro Tanaka looks on during batting practice before a game against the Houston Astros on Opening Day at Minute Maid Park on April 1, 2014 in Houston. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Bob Levey

This isn't just about baseball, not for the 150 reporters from Japanese media outlets who have requested credentials from the Yankees this season and are preparing to detail every pitch of Masahiro Tanaka's major-league debut Friday night in Toronto.

This isn't just about baseball, not for the busload of Asian fans who pressed up against a fence behind Steinbrenner Field at spring training in Tampa, Fla., so they could catch a glimpse of Tanaka throwing batting practice.

This isn't just about baseball, not for a select number of Tanaka's teammates -- such as backup catcher Francisco Cervelli -- who have become household names in Japan because they have regular contact with the Yankees' prized 25-year-old righthander, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

No, this isn't just about baseball. This is about national pride and passion so fierce that on days when Tanaka pitches, the Bronx might as well be a far western suburb of Tokyo.

When Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees in January, it made the front page of all of Japan's national newspapers, including the financial daily Nikkei.

"In Japan, players represent the national psyche, the culture," said Brad Lefton, a freelance television producer who has covered baseball in Japan and the United States for 20 years. "How Tanaka responds to coming to the U.S. is very important to Japan as a country. Everyone in Japan, every father, mother and daughter, knows his story, knows what happened to him in high school."

Japanese fans appreciate the way a player deals with his emotions. This best explains how one of Tanaka's most painful and disappointing moments, his high school team's loss in the finals of the ultra-important 2006 Koshien Tournament, won him the heart of the nation.

In the championship game, Tanaka found himself in a pitchers' duel with Yuki Saito, the nation's No. 1 pitcher.

With each pitcher giving up only a run, the game ended in a draw after 15 innings, setting up a full rematch the next day. Both players were pressed into pitching again, and, in the most dramatic of fashions, Saito ended up with the 4-3 win, striking out Tanaka for the final out.

The national telecast of the game spent as much time showing close-ups of Tanaka's face as he struggled to maintain his composure after the loss as it did the winning team's celebration.

"If you lose in Japan with dignity, it's almost bigger than winning," Lefton said.

It was the performance at Koshien that convinced George Rose, the Yankees' adviser for Pacific Rim operations, that Tanaka had what it took to withstand the pressures of being a superstar in New York.

Rose, whose association with the Yankees began when he was Hideki Irabu's translator, authored a detailed rundown on Tanaka for the Yankees last November. The report was one of the things that convinced them to be a major player in the Tanaka sweepstakes.

Rose said he learned that Tanaka had been suffering from intestinal distress during the tournament but still managed to throw 742 pitches in five games over a two-week period. He had not been scheduled to pitch in the Saito rematch but was pressed into duty when his team's starter faltered in the first inning. Afterward, Tanaka told reporters that he made himself go out there because he didn't want to have any regrets when the tournament was over.

"He's a great competitor," Rose said. "He's got the Samurai spirit, that's for sure."

Rose also recalled how Tanaka became a symbol of hope for fans in 2011 after an 8.9 magnitude earthquake killed more than 1,000 people in the Japanese city of Sendai, where his Rakuten Golden Eagles played. In addition to their relief efforts, the Golden Eagles were a welcome diversion. A few months after the earthquake, Tanaka pitched brilliantly in front of a sellout crowd, then celebrated by running a lap around the baseball stadium, high-fiving fans.

"I think what Yankee fans are going to find out is that . . . he wants to be the man in the big moment," Rose said.

Tanaka's first big New York moment came when he arrived for his news conference in a chartered Boeing 787 Dreamliner with his wife, Japanese pop star Mai Satoda, and toy poodle Haru.

With future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki and pitcher Hiroki Kuroda already in pinstripes, the Yankees became the center of attention for Japanese baseball fans.

In terms of their popularity in Japan, having Tanaka on the same team with Suzuki is akin to having LeBron James begin his career on the same team as Michael Jordan.

"To have Ichiro, Tanaka and Kuroda on the same team, it's almost like a dream," said Nobuyuki Kobayashi, the Yankees beat writer for The Daily Sports News, a Tokyo-based publication. "The Yankees have been the most popular team in Japan going back to when [Hideki] Matsui was playing here, but now, even more."

On any given day at spring training, the number of Japanese reporters was nearly double the rest of the press corps. The Yankees now employ three Japanese translators, one for each player, plus a Japanese media coordinator, whose primary job is to set up interviews with Tanaka.

The interest in Tanaka is so fierce that when he threw a batting-practice session at spring training, all the players he faced found a crowd of Japanese reporters around their lockers.

"It's kinda crazy. I'm going to be famous in Japan," said infielder Scott Sizemore, who was with the Yankees in spring training before being assigned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes- Barre. "I had a taste in Oakland when Matsui was there, but it was nothing like this."

When Tanaka pitched his first exhibition game, three Japanese television networks aired it live, even though the first pitch was thrown at 4:15 a.m. in Tokyo.

"It's funny that a spring training game can get this kind of attention," Suzuki told reporters. "It just shows that it keeps happening. Someday a new player will come along, and it will happen all over again."

Tanaka seems to take it all in stride. All through spring training, he held two news conferences, one for the Japanese media and one for the English-speaking media.

When asked through an interpreter what his toughest adjustment has been, Tanaka shrugged. "Everything is new to me," he said. "But little by little, I am getting used to it."

No, this is not just about baseball. This is about living up to a nation's heavy expectations, about being a symbol of hope every waking moment.

"They feel a little more weight," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "because they are representing their country. Each one paves the way for the next guy."

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