Special Cover Story on Masahiro Tanaka – April Issue
March 10, 2014 – During the first week of spring training, I interviewed Masahiro Tanaka over lunch for the cover story of the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.
On February 18, I spent a few hours with the Yankees free agent acquisition at SoHo Sushi in Tampa, Florida. During our meal, Tanaka discussed his childhood in Japan, his incredible career in Japan’s Nippon League and his goals with the Yankees.
In final three seasons with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka racked up a 53-9 record, and he put together a perfect 24-0 season with a 1.27 ERA, while leading the Golden Eagles to their first championship in 2013.
Tanaka — who was accompanied by Yankees advisor of Pacific Rim operations, George Rose, interpreter Shingo Horie and Japanese media advisor Yoshiki Sato — ordered a variety of sushi and other Japanese favorites for the group.
Without even browsing the menu at the acclaimed sushi bar, Tanaka quickly rattled off a list of items in Japanese to Horie, who then relayed the order to our waitress.
Moments later, 12 sushi rolls and several other dishes began to fill the table.
As quickly as the culinary masterpieces arrived, Tanaka began to pluck pieces of sushi off each dish with a pair of chopsticks. From the tuna rolls to the elaborate volcano roll, which included crab and cucumber wrapped in avocado and buried under a mountain of baked spicy salmon and crabmeat, Tanaka devoured it all.
“I love sushi,” Tanaka said through Horie. “I’ve been eating it since I was a little kid.”
During the meal, Tanaka opened up about his decision to attend Komazawa University Tomakamai High School, which was located far from his hometown.
“It took a two-hour plane ride to get from my home to the high school,” Tanaka said. “I was far away from where my family was, but I wanted to go to that high school because I felt that I could become a better baseball player there. Even when I was very young, I was thinking about where I could improve my skills as a baseball player, and when I saw the environment that they had at Tomakamai, I knew that was the best place for me. That’s why I made the decision to go there.”
Tanaka, who led Tomakamai to two championships in Japan’s prestigious Summer Koshien tournament, also discussed the pressure he felt to perform at such a young age.
“Tomakamai had been very successful before I got there,” Tanaka said. “As a result, there was an enormous amount of pressure on me to continue to help them win championships. I didn’t feel any pressure when I was playing, but when the games were over, I always felt a sense of relief. That helped me to understand that there was a lot of pressure, but I also felt good about the way I dealt with it.”
The part of the conversation that interested me the most involved the amount of time Tanaka spent on the diamond when he was in high school.
“I practiced baseball about nine hours a day back then,” Tanaka said. “I went to school and finished my studies at about 1 p.m., and then I would play baseball until about 10 o’clock at night. There were nights in which some of my teammates and I would finish up at around midnight.”
After we discussed Tanaka’s early days, he shared his thoughts on more recent times, including his undefeated campaign in 2013.
“I was just taking it one game at a time,” said the 25 year-old right-hander. “I just happened to get 24 wins.”
At the end of the lunch, Tanaka beamed as he spoke about his decision to sign with the Yankees.
“I feel that the Yankees wanted me the most and gave me the highest evaluation,” Tanaka said. “As a player, you can’t ask for much more than that. The Yankees are so rich in tradition. They are the team that everyone wants to play for. I felt that this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
–Alfred Santasiere III