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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Laugh or cry? Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka chooses former after watching video of liner to his head

Yankees' pitcher Masahiro Tanaka #19 warning up in

Yankees' pitcher Masahiro Tanaka #19 warning up in the rain during practice at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, July 11, 2020 Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Masahiro Tanaka laughed. But not in a funny joke sort of way. It was hard for him to explain. In any language, really.

The reaction was to a question I asked Tanaka about whether or not he had watched the video of Giancarlo Stanton’s bullet liner ricocheting off the right side of his head back on July 4 in the Bronx.

For those of us who witnessed the incident in person, in real time, it was terrifying, even from the press box roughly 300 feet away. Countless others observed the replay. For Tanaka, he barely saw the ball -- which was traveling at 112 mph -- and dropped instantly to the dirt upon impact.

Anyone would understand if Tanaka chose to pass on seeing the gruesome episode himself. No need to re-live the experience, especially when you consider Tanaka probably escaped far more serious injury by a few millimeters. But in this case, Tanaka couldn’t help but laugh.

“It's kind of weird,” Tanaka said Tuesday through an interpreter. “But I'm never able to see other pitchers in the same situation gets struck in their head or anything like that. I mean, that kind of frightens me. But for some reason, I'm able to see myself get struck in the head by a ball. I don't know why.”

Then I had to know. Just once?

“Many times,” Tanaka said.

Maybe we’re just looking at this wrong. The fact that Tanaka never had to spend a night in the hospital, and already is back participating in light baseball activities, is the silver lining to all this. It’s why he could cue up the video and manage an uncomfortable smile. Despite absorbing that Stanton’s line drive, he dodged catastrophe.

“It's a very unfortunate event, but I feel like I got very fortunate,” Tanaka said. “I feel very lucky because it could have been something that's much worse. Right now I have no symptoms at all.”

The Yankees don’t have a timetable yet for Tanaka’s return, but even getting to this point -- in a pivotal season for the pending free agent -- was never a sure thing. When the first spring training was canceled in the very early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tanaka took his family back to Japan rather than continue training in the States, for reasons he didn’t quite specify.

It was the logical choice. The U.S. strategy for handling the coronavirus already was trending in the wrong direction, New York’s cases were skyrocketing, so who could blame Tanaka if he believed they would be safer half the world away at home. But Tanaka also mentioned “incidents” that contributed to his travel plans, though he declined to go into detail about them.

“I think I said what I wanted to say through some social media at the time,” Tanaka said. “But it was more of like considering what's best -- what was best for the family. Obviously, there were some incidents, and someone had to make the decision of what we were going to do. Just considering everything I thought that going back to Japan would make the most sense for our family.”

Apparently, Tanaka must have been deeply affected by what happened, as well as worried about the pandemic raging in the States, because going back to play baseball again wasn’t automatic in his mind. We just assumed he’d be rushing to finish what could be his final season in the Bronx, with free agency on the other side. But coming back was no slam dunk for the Yankees’ No. 2 starter.

“Actually I did think through it,” Tanaka said. “ It wasn't like an instant easy decision. But I've decided to come back here and play. And now that I've made that decision, I’m going to give it my best and give my hundred percent.”

He’s just not totally there yet. Tanaka was able to stay in shape by throwing bullpens during his Japan stay, but Yankees’ summer camp was only a few minutes old before he was knocked out of it. Within a handful of pitches, Tanaka was flat on his back, then helped off the field, with trainers clinging to each of his arms.

Stanton -- a teammate -- turned out to be his most lethal opponent, that menacing swing repeating over and over on that fateful video loop Tanaka chose to keep watching. There was nothing he could have done to avoid what happened. Perhaps embracing that will help in returning to the mound, and staring down that same danger again.

“As of now, I think everything will be OK,” Tanaka said. “But you really don't know until you face a live hitter.”

After all that’s happened already this year, what could be left for Tanaka to fear? He’s seen the worst -- and lived to laugh about it.

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