Tanaka draws crowds for first workout
Yankees phenom participates in numerous pitching activities as camp opens
TAMPA, Fla. -- Apart from the running, it was a promising beginning for the new gem of the Yankees' rotation, Masahiro Tanaka.
Saturday, on the first day of workouts for Yankees' pitchers and catchers, Tanaka threw 32 pitches to catcher Francisco Cervelli in a bullpen session and participated in variety of typical Spring Training pitching activities.
The work was ordinary for Spring Training, but extraordinary for the amount of attention paid to one player. About 150 media members were on hand for Tanaka's inaugural workout, the majority of them Japanese.
But what left an impression on Tanaka was the conditioning run that finished practice for the pitchers. Four laps around a practice field, roughly a mile, and at the end of it Tanaka's face was contorted into a painful grimace. When he was asked later what one thing he would most remember from his first workout with the Yankees, he smiled and said through an interpreter:
"Probably what I'll remember was the four laps that we did at the end. That was pretty hard."
Tanaka played long toss with Hiroki Kuroda, threw his bullpen session, participated in pitchers' fielding practice, and then did the conditioning run. But that last activity seemed to stay with him.
"Just the running part, that was really hard for me today," Tanaka said. "I actually didn't know that I was going to run this much. And I'm a little bit of a slow runner, so that part I really can't help."
The first workout of Spring Training is usually a routine exercise. But at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Saturday, it was also an international event.
The activity was the normal, common, everyday stuff of early Spring Training. But with Tanaka on the mound, it became the biggest baseball thing in town. Or in the state. Or in North America. Or anywhere on the planet, for that matter.
Scores of media personnel were on hand to chronicle Tanaka's every move, from his emergence onto a practice field in the morning to his every word during a post-practice press conference in the afternoon. A large contingent of fans ringed the fences to observe Tanaka's work.
"As a player, I feel very honored to get this much attention," Tanaka said. "Some fans were cheering today and I was very happy to receive those cheers. But at the same time, I understand that I haven't given out any results on the field yet. So my focus is to train and go out there and try to get those results.
"Honestly, when I stepped out on the field today, I was very, very surprised as to how many media were out there."
Perhaps the level of attention was understandable, given the Yankees investment in Tanaka and his attempt to become a man for all hemispheres.
The Yankees, in an effort to get back on top of the baseball world, or at least back on top of the American League East, committed roughly $500 million to free agents this winter. But the free-agent acquisition who may be most important in determining the Yankees renewed upward mobility is Tanaka.
He signed with the Yankees for $155 million over seven years. Tanaka has never pitched in North American professional baseball, but his work in Japan was beyond reproach. A 24-0 record with a 1.27 ERA in 2013 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles stated his case very well.
How will that success translate in North American baseball? The bullpen session was a small, but promising slice of evidence in that regard. Tanaka had thrown a 25-pitch bullpen session to Cervelli on Thursday before the official opening of camp. This time, Cervelli indicated, Tanaka was letting the ball go a bit more.
"The fastball command was really good," Cervelli said of Tanaka's work on Saturday. "He threw the same pitches, sliders and splits, but what I care about is the fastball and it was really good."
Cervelli said that he did not think Tanaka would be distracted by the intensive media attention.
"He's going to get used to that," Cervelli said. "When the whole team comes here, it's going to be the same for everybody. He's not the only guy who makes $100 million here. There's going to be attention for a lot of people.
"Even me, I don't make even a million and I've got attention sometimes. You get used to it. Maybe it's a surprise to him when he comes here, but I believe every player when they step in the Yankee organization, they love this kind of thing."
Tanaka is just 25, but that is one of the reasons his price became so high. He was a highly successful competitor in Japan. His talent and his will might very well make him a major success in North America as well.
As for his apparent distaste for running, he wasn't hired to be a middle-distance man. He'll get his laps in and the Yankees will get their shot at a dramatically improved rotation that includes Tanaka.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.