Tanaka pursuit underscores baseball's global growth
The pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka is one more major piece of evidence that the internationalization of baseball is moving forward at full steam.
A Japanese pitcher who has never pitched in North American professional baseball has become the central figure of this offseason. This is not only good for Tanaka, this is good for baseball.
Commissioner Bud Selig has a vision of a truly international game, one with a World Series that truly represents the entire world. That game is not with us yet. But you can see it from here.
Western Hemisphere baseball fans have learned of the quality of Japanese baseball through the exploits of players who have made the move to the Major Leagues. From Ichiro Suzuki to Yu Darvish, these players have made an indisputable impact on the North American game.
Now, the most valued performer in this winter's group of available starting pitchers is Tanaka. Posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles, he is now the subject of an intense bidding war.
He can have his choice -- Southern California, the desert Southwest, the upper Midwest, New York City, you name it. Reliable reports put the Dodgers, D-backs, White Sox, Cubs, and, of course, the Yankees as his primary choices at this point.
He reportedly will receive a contract for six years and more than $100 million. He is only 25. He went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season. He is Japan's best pitcher. If that doesn't automatically translate into being the best pitcher on the planet, Tanaka will be paid like an ace by some Major League team.
What we learn from the Tanaka derby is that the North American supply of free-agent pitchers is taking second place. The rest of the free-agent pitchers are essentially on hold while the pursuit of Tanaka takes center stage.
We also are reminded, by the variety of clubs involved in the bidding, that baseball has a broader base of prosperity than it once did. But perhaps the biggest lesson here is that the entire Tanaka chase shows an underlying respect for the quality of Japanese baseball.
And why not? In the three global contests that have been held, the World Baseball Classics, the Japanese have won the championship twice. That's twice more than Team USA.
The championship Japanese teams in international competition have been fundamentally sound -- playing alert, aggressive, appealing baseball. They didn't beat themselves. They were a joy to watch.
They were a revelation to some American fans, but we should have known for some time how good Japanese baseball was. In America, we use the term "national pastime" to describe baseball, but we understand fully that term from another time, when the American sports landscape could be dominated by one sport.
In Japan, baseball truly is the national pastime. Japanese writers have described, for example, the scope of Hideki Matsui's stardom in Japan as being like that of Michael Jordan in America.
Prior to the first World Baseball Classic, the Japanese ambassador to the United States at that time, Ryozo Kato, hosted a reception at his residence for two of the game's greatest sluggers, Sadaharu Oh and Henry Aaron.
It was a splendid event, with these two greats of the game, and it was also a fitting salute to the international growth of the game.
Ambassador Kato, in his welcoming remarks, said that his wife noted that he said more romantic things about baseball than he did about her. The ambassador said that he politely told his wife that was because he had been in love with baseball longer than he had been in love with her.
That anecdote delighted the crowd at the reception and also gave the North Americans present at the event a bit of insight into the status that baseball had in Japan.
Now, we have as the centerpiece of the current offseason a Japanese pitcher. This is not only a tribute to Tanaka's achievements and ability, but it also serves as recognition on the part of Major League clubs of the quality of Japanese baseball.
Major League Baseball has been made better on the field by the influx of Latin American players and by players from East Asia. But the intense, expensive pursuit for the services of Tanaka also offers a view of baseball's future.
And that is a future in which baseball becomes a truly international game. That game will be even bigger, and potentially even better, than the one we watch now. It will be global baseball.
The pursuit of Tanaka, the acknowledgement of his quality, even before he has thrown one pitch for a Major League club, is a sign of the game's international growth. Baseball is on the way to becoming truly global.