“I will now challenge you to this ridiculous game, and I promise you in advance that you will not win.” — Tiger Tanaka to James Bond, You Only Live Twice
Sooner or later, Masahiro Tanaka, ace right-hander of the New York Yankees, is going to lose a game. The law of averages says that it’s inevitable.
But Tanaka has been a little slow in obeying this particular law. From 2012 through 2013, he won a record 30 consecutive games in Japan, pitching for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. So far this year he’s 4-0 and has American League hitters looking as if they’re swinging at BBs. The Yankees are just half a game out of the top spot in the AL East, and Tanaka is the primary reason: All other Yankee pitchers have combined for a won-lost record of 14-15.
In January, the Yankees signed the 25-year-old to a seven-year, $155 million contract—and that was after paying $20 million to the Golden Eagles just for the rights to negotiate with him. So far, it looks as if the Bombers might have gotten a bargain; TV ratings shoot up and stands are packed on days when he’s on the mound. At this rate, it won’t be long before he may be recognized as Major League Baseball’s biggest drawing card.
His appearances are treated by the media like those of a rock star—not unreasonable, perhaps, considering that he’s married to one, Mai Satoda of the now-disbanded Country Musume (“Country Girls”) and a popular TV show Quiz! Hexagon, where she endeared herself to Japanese audiences for giving ridiculously answers to trivia questions. One Japanese reporter likened her persona to Goldie Hawn on the old Laugh-In: “She was well-liked for being ditzy.” (To see her in action on the show, go here.)
Tanaka’s arrival in New York for his introduction as a Yankee was accorded the kind of press reserved for the kickoff of a Beyoncé tour. He rented an entire Japan Airlines Boeing 787 at the cost of $195,000 to carry Mr. and Mrs. Tanaka, a Japanese baseball official, two friends, and the couple’s brown toy poodle, Haru, on a plane that can handle 190 passengers. Before his departure, Tanaka was careful to remind reporters, “It’s a private jet. It’s not something the Yankees prepared.” Actually, some suspected that Japan Airlines provided the plane gratis for the publicity.
If Tanaka did pay for the plane, no worries. Estimates are that by the fourth inning of his second start the cost was covered.
Less than two months into the season, he’s on the verge of becoming a huge fan favorite in New York. The Yankees crowd already yells his nickname in chorus when he walks to the mound, “Ma-kun” or just plain “Ma.” “There is really not a way to say it in English,” explained his interpreter at his first Yankees press conference. “It’s just a very friendly way of calling somebody.”
He takes his pregame tosses to warm-up songs by the all-girl Japanese group Momoiro Clover Z. (In practice he uses custom-made gloves with multicolored fingers, one each for the signature colors of the group’s members.)
Another nickname which is gaining momentum is “Tiger,” for Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service in Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, a moniker given credence by the tenacity he’s shown so far. In his first start on April 4 against the Toronto Blue Jays, Melky Cabrera welcomed him to the big leagues with a solo home run in the first and the Blue Jays struck for two more runs in the second. Tanaka then settled into a groove, pitching shut-out ball for the next five innings, fanning eight as the Yankees won 7-3.
And last Saturday against the Tampa Ray Rays, he gave up runs in the 1st, 2nd and 4th (two of them homers) as the Yankees fell behind. Once again, he dug in until the Yankees came back to take the lead in the 6th and went on to a 9-3 win. In all he struck out five Tampa hitters, giving him 51 for the season—the fifth-highest strikeout total of any pitcher in his first six major league starts in the last 115 seasons.
When he takes the mound tonight against the Milwaukee Brewers, it will make another first for him: The Brewers are a National League team, so there is no designated hitter and Tanaka will have to swing his own bat for the first time in American baseball.
Tanaka seems to have two natures, as The New Yorks’ Barry Bearak noted in March, “Shy and good-natured off the field, yet so fierce and determined while on it that he could appear possessed. He roared as he threw a pitch. He pumped his fist after striking someone out. He scolded teammates for sloppy play.” So far in the States, he has eschewed the roaring, pumping, and scolding so as not to antagonize his new teammates and opponents.
He doesn’t need such histrionics to intimidate. At 6’2”, Tanaka throws a fearsome four-seam fastball which has been clocked as high as 94 mph and a split-fingered fastball as well as a slider which, says Yankees catcher Brian McCann, “breaks like it’s falling off a table.” All the pitches in his arsenal are delivered with a fluid hip-swinging propulsion that has scouts in awe. (Watch Tanaka’s “loaded hips” delivery.)
All of this was developed in a baseball organization which most American boys would regard as more akin to military school than sports. He was born in Itami, 12 miles from Osaka in western Japan. Instead of playing baseball for his local high school, he traveled more than 900 miles to Komazawa Daigaku-fuzoku Tomakomai—just plain Tomakomai to its fans—a school known for its strict baseball regimen, where he lived with other players in a dormitory.
How strict was it? “We were allowed,” says Tanaka through his interpreter as he talked to the American media for the first time in pinstripes, “no smoking, no drinking, no late-night mah-jongg.”
He emerged from high school as one of the most famous athletes in Japan, and at age 18 signed with the Golden Eagles. In his first season, pitching against batters who were on average 10 years his senior, he was 11-7. Over the next six years he went 88-28 with an ERA of 2.21. In his last three seasons in Japan his ERA was a jaw-dropping 1.40.
Tanaka has given the Yankees a dignity, discipline, and confidence, qualities they sorely need now that Mariano Rivera is gone, Derek Jeter is in his final season, and Alex Rodriguez is lost for the year to a drug suspension.
In turn, he has learned something about American baseball. Some of his teammates, including his countryman and future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, call him by yet another nickname, “Meat,” a tag applied to Tim Robbins’s rookie pitcher by Kevin Costner’s veteran catcher in Bull Durham.
When asked by a reporter if he knew what it meant, Tanaka said with a laugh, “Someone told me that’s how people call each other in the Yankees clubhouse.”
What, another reporter wanted to know, would he do when his winning streak—currently at 34—came to an end? With a soft smile and a shrug that belied by his steely eyes, he replied, “Start another.”