Tanaka's legend already approaching mythic levels
Now Masahiro Tanaka is the latest Roy Hobbs wannabe. Actually, if you go by his otherworldly credentials as a pitcher in Japan, the man they call "Ma-kun" is sprinkled with more pixie dust than that. He is the combination of Joe Hardy, T-Rex Pennebaker, Steve Nebraska, Bobby Rayburn, Stan Ross and Chet "Rocket" Steadman -- at least when it comes to what baseball fans expect of a super hero in cleats between the foul lines.
Those were fictional characters, but there have been a slew of real ones who either have sizzled or fizzled with their bigger-than-life tags.
Remember Sixto Lezcano? Didn't think so.
How about Joe Charboneau, David Clyde, Wily Mo Pena, Mike Ivie and Willie Mays Aikens? They joined Lezcano and others by falling a little shy of the Hall of Fame despite celebrated entries into the Major Leagues. Then there were others who were mighty teases. Kerry Wood punctuated his rookie season as a 20-year-old by striking out 20 Houston hitters during a one-hit shutout. Jeff Francoeur impressed so much with his bat that he made the cover of Sports Illustrated after only a few months in the Major Leagues.
You know the rest. Wood never reached 15 wins during his injury-marred career, and Francouer is with his fourth team and hasn't hit .300 since his rookie year. But things have been better for the Nationals' dynamic duo of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who have matched their hype with action. Whether Yasiel Puig does the same during his second season with the Dodgers after his brilliance following his arrival in the middle of last season, who knows?
So here we go again. Tanaka is just the latest baseball player to become bigger than life before donning his first Major League uniform.
The hype continues, though, and this is mostly good. For one, the rising mania surrounding Tanaka on this side of the Pacific adds to baseball's reputation as a resting place for those who dare to dream. Courtesy of our National Pastime, anything is possible, ranging from sunshine bursting through every cloud to a World Series title for the Cubs sitting just another October away.
There also is this: Tanaka is worth every syllable of his hype, because his brilliant right arm says so. He was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season. Not bad, and the same goes for his lifetime numbers. After seven seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball, Tanaka has a 99-35 record and 2.30 ERA. And, yes, he was throwing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles instead of the Yankees, but we're talking about a 25-year-old who has yet to peak, and Major League scouts say he has the control of a Greg Maddux and the power of a Nolan Ryan.
I'd take him. So would the Yankees, the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Red Sox, the Rangers, the D-backs and the Mariners.
That's just for starters.
All 30 teams will have a chance to sign Tanaka before Jan. 24, and here's my guess: Nearly all 30 teams will try, and he won't come cheaply. Not only will his Major League salary approach the total payroll of some teams, there is that matter of a posting fee. Whoever lands Tanaka will have to pay $20 million to Tohoku Rakuten since he remains under contract with the Japanese team.
It could be worse financially for Tanaka's future MLB team. Prior to an agreement two weeks ago between MLB and NBP, there wasn't a cap on posting fees. In fact, the Rangers paid more than $50 million two years ago for the posting fee of pitcher Yu Darvish -- and then the Rangers negotiated Darvish's salary. Yikes, as in more than $60 million.
Speaking of Darvish, he also was a star pitcher in Japan for seven seasons, but only for the Nippon Ham Fighters. He was high on strikeouts, but he was low on walks in NPB along the way to a career ERA of 1.99. If you haven't guessed by now, he was Tanaka before Tanaka. That applies to on the mound and at the negotiating table. After Darvish and his handlers announced two years ago he would take his skills to the highest Major League bidder, he became the top bigger-than-life player of that time.
How did things turn out?
You decide. During Darvish's two seasons with the Rangers, he hasn't missed a trip to the All-Star Game. If he isn't the American League's best pitcher with a fastball that approaches nearly 100 mph and rarely is errant, he is in the top three. He led baseball in strikeouts last season, with 277 in 209 2/3 innings, and he came within an out of a perfect game in his first start of the season. To translate: Darvish's stretch as Japan's best pitcher along the way to shining at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 World Baseball Classic foreshadowed things to come in the Major Leagues.
So it sort of matters that Tanaka is a two-time winner of the Sawamura Award, which is Japan's equivalent to the Cy Young Award. He also was named Most Valuable Player of the Pacific League. In addition, he added to his legend by marrying Japanese pop star Mai Satoda.
Roy Hobbs never married a pop star.
Does that mean Tanaka is better than Hobbs?
We shall see.