Tanaka signing scratches Yanks' seven-year itchNew York courted standout Japanese pitcher
As general manager Brian Cashman recalled during a Wednesday afternoon conference call, however, that announcement was actually the culmination of a process that began nearly seven years ago, when the Yankees were still a couple seasons away from the bombshell 2008-09 offseason many have already begin to compare this winter to.
"We started evaluating (Tanaka) over in Japan back in 2007, and we certainly paid close attention to him in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, when we were first able to evaluate him against Major League hitters," Cashman said. "This year we were at 15 of his games, including the WBC, and we sent a Major League scout to evaluate him during the NPB playoffs as well. We made a determined effort to put ourselves in a position to know as much as we possibly could in the event that he was ever posted, so this has been a long process from all standpoints."
Tanaka was indeed posted this winter by the Japan Series champion Rakuten Golden Eagles, coming available once NPB and MLB worked out a new posting system for players. However, once the Yankees were one of several teams to bid the maximum $20 million to earn the right to negotiate with the righty and agent Casey Close, the usual free agent courting process didn't quite apply.
"He was brought to Los Angeles for two days, Jan. 8 and 9, to do a physical and meet all the clubs that were either invited or interested; I don't know how many teams they met with, but as it was conveyed to me by Casey Close, this was our one time to meet with the player," Cashman said. "Usually, people come to your ballpark and you get to show off your great city and stadium and all the amenities that come with it, but this time we were in a more difficult spot to have to travel elsewhere to sell ourselves."
And so, in the effort of due diligence on both ends, Cashman said that he was one of eight people - including manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, team president Randy Levine, two assistant GMs, Japanese scouting liaison George Rose and special assistant Trey Hillman, who managed NPB's Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to the Japan Series title in 2006 - that made the trip out west.
"We met with Tanaka for about two hours, and it was more of us presenting to him what we're about and the direction we're trying to go in. It wasn't so much recruiting as an educational spot for him, and that's why we brought eight people," Cashman said. "That's why we left no stone unturned; we recognized it as no matter how long we had, we'd have that room filled with anybody and everybody who could make this player feel comfortable about knowing what the Yankees were all about. That was our one shot, and we took it very seriously. It might have been overkill, but we'd rather go all out than fall short and wish we did more."
And, Cashman said, part of that presentation was a video that gave Tanaka a little lesson about Yankee Stadium, one that featured a special message from another NPB star-turned-Yankees standout.
"We prepared a video that we had started putting together in the summer in the event he was posted, and we had Hideki Matsui participate with a message for Tanaka," Cashman said. "We also put together a video of our ballpark, kind of like an MTV Cribs piece where he could walk through the ballpark and see all our facilities that we would have shown him if he was here. We provided as much as we possibly could to close the gap from not having him here. He made the decision not to travel city to city, and we tried to take that process as seriously as possible, and we had kind of prepared in advance for the event we were in a position to have to sell ourselves from afar."
The sales pitch worked, although not without a lot of tension over the past two weeks.
"I thought that the negotiations were extremely private, so I can't tell you that at any time we had an idea," the GM revealed. "The Yankees' history kind of sells itself and I could count on that going into the process, and I could count on the fact that great players like Hideki Matsui and Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki played and had success here, and with all the games going back to be broadcast in Japan, Tanaka-san was certainly educated about this team, this history, and this city. But, I had no sense until last night that we were finalists to close something out with him. We were hopeful, but I had no indication, and it was difficult to communicate with my owner as to where this was leaning."
When news broke early Wednesday morning that a deal was finalized for Tanaka to don the pinstripes, it marked the end of the first process and sparked jubilation from the Yankees' fervent fan base - but as of now, Cashman revealed, that jubilation will have to remain from afar.
"I don't know yet," Cashman said when asked when Tanaka might make his first appearance in New York City. "Late last night our time I was on the phone with Casey Close, who was on the phone with Tanaka back in Japan, and this got done late in the middle of the night. We have more things to finalize in terms of work visas and the union and roster moves, and when we can get him here is one of those things too."
The roster move to add Tanaka came later Wednesday when the team announced they were designating LHP David Huff for assignment, but for now, as the Yankees faithful await word on the status of an official introduction, the GM says they can at least rest easy knowing that
"I think the message gets reinforced on a yearly basis that the Steinbrenner family is always trying to add to the tradition their dad created, and that we're always trying to put a championship caliber team on the field," Cashman said. "Trying to fix things in the winter is easier than trying to do it in the summertime; even as dark as things were last year with all the injuries - we set a record in terms of number of players used, and at times they weren't anywhere close to some of the big names we secured this winter - we're still trying. Some years we'll have more success than others, and some years we'll be prouder of the results than others, but the one thing that is consistent is the effort, and the one thing that has never been questioned is the commitment that the Steinbrenner family has for this team and this city."