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Masahiro Tanaka courtship ties up free-agent traffic

Rakuten Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, right, celebrates with

Rakuten Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, right, celebrates with catcher Motohiro Shima after defeating the Yomiuri Giants to win the Japan Series professional baseball championship. (Nov. 3, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

A few days ago, about a dozen media members were interviewing Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts about his club's interest in Japanese righthander Masahiro Tanaka outside the owners' meetings in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

Most of the reporters were from Japan, underscoring that country's interest in discovering where Tanaka is going.

Tanaka is Japan's best pitcher. He has to sign with an MLB club by 5 p.m. Friday or his rights will revert to his Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Ricketts had his back to a wall -- literally. After hemming and hawing and talking about "respect for the process," the Cubs' owner bolted to a waiting car, escaping the reporters without so much as an acknowledgment that his club had met with Tanaka and his agent, Casey Close.

Close, who also represents Derek Jeter, has wrangled a media blackout around Tanaka. Longtime MLB executives who like nothing more than proclaiming their teams' intentions -- either publicly or behind the scenes in whispered tones -- have zipped their lips when it comes to the 25-year-old righthander.

The Japanese media and public aren't the only ones waiting for the Tanaka sweepstakes to end. A Yankees official told Newsday this past week that the team is stuck in neutral until Tanaka makes his decision.

So, too, are other interested clubs, plus free-agent pitchers Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Bronson Arroyo and Ubaldo Jimenez. All are waiting for Tanaka to pick a team and set the market for starting pitching.

The Yankees are known to want Tanaka. So are the Cubs, Dodgers, White Sox and an unknown number of other clubs. (The two Chicago teams are the only ones who have even admitted meeting with Tanaka; Ricketts wouldn't 'fess up, but Cubs manager Rick Renteria did let it slip later that same day at a fan festival.)

Tanaka, who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for Rakuten last season, also has kept his intentions close to the vest. He is said to want to sign with a big-market team, possibly on the West Coast, because his wife, Mai Satoda, is a budding Japanese pop star. But that word has not come from Tanaka himself.

All that is really known is that Tanaka will cost the winning team a $20-million posting fee that will go to Rakuten and at least $100 million in salary.

For the Yankees, signing Tanaka would fill a huge hole. With only CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova in the rotation, the Yankees are desperate. Their final offer to Tanaka -- whom they have scouted extensively and truly value -- could reflect that desperation.

But the Yankees are not the only big financial dog in this hunt. The Dodgers, who just signed Clayton Kershaw to a record $215-million extension, did not drop out of the Tanaka sweepstakes.

The Cubs have deep pockets and a need to become relevant for more than just a very unpopular mascot named Clark who recently was introduced to howls in Chicago.

So where will Tanaka end up?

Keep listening. By 5 p.m. Friday, the secret will be out.

New York Sports