Masahiro Tanaka spoke to the Japanese media on Saturday, and said that while he’s got unfinished business in the majors, he had hoped to play again in Japan and not at the biter end of his career. When his first choice, a return to the New York Yankees was not in the cards, Tanaka said he struggled and struggled and only resolved his dilemma by thinking what he wanted to do most.
Read the Kyodo News (English) story .
Although Tanaka said he turned down very good offers from other major league clubs, he had a chance to return to the northeastern Japan city of Sendai in the center of a region devastated 10 years ago on March 11, 2011 by an earthquake and tsunami.
Here’s a translated transcript of Tanaka’s answers at the press conference held in Tokyo on Jan. 30. Also in attendance were the team’s owner, Hiroshi Mikitani, the team president Yozo Tachibana, and Kazuhisa Ishii, the team’s GM and manager.
Seven years, when went I wanted to challenge myself in the major leagues, the owner, Mr. Mikitani, allowed me to go. And now he has allowed me to come back, so I am extremely grateful to him.
Mr. Tachibana always stayed in touch, and allowed me to use the team’s facilities however I liked. You may not know this but behind the scenes he is the kind of team president who uses pretty harsh language, but even so I’m always appreciative of him.
“The GM and manager, Mr. Ishii, appealed to me, saying we absolutely need you. And that kind of public statement is big for a player.”
“This is the 10th year since the disaster, but also the first year I’ve been a free agent with the ability to choose my team. For me, that No. 10 was an important figure, and gave this timing special meaning. That led me toward this decision.”
“At the instant I became a free agent, truthfully, my desire was to re-sign with the Yankees and continue playing for them. But at a very early stage, I heard from them through my agent and felt it would be better if I considered other options, which I considered, including a return to Japan.”
“Honestly, I was suddenly thinking of things I had never ever thought of before, and it was really troubling. What got me out of that conundrum was asking how I want to play baseball and in what circumstances do I want to play. There were offers, and I guess those details will come out. But things are difficult right now in this pandemic world.”
“I played over there for seven years, and was told how much I was valued, and received really good offers. But for me there was also this chance, to play for the Eagles again, to pitch once more in front of my fellow Japanese and in the end, there was no offer that could surpass that.”
Questions and answers
–Seven years ago, did you imagine this day would come?
Tanaka: “I was asked that then, but hate the idea that whatever I said might be misunderstood so I declined to answer. Of course, if the Rakuten Eagles hadn’t made this offer it wouldn’t matter what I thought. But there was the idea I might return and play for the Eagles again and not just at the end of my career, but when the time was right. So really, from the very start I so wanted to come back.”
Mr. Mikitani was asked if he kept Tanaka’s No. 18 unused in case of his return. He said that was not only his desire, but that of the organization and the people of the Tohoku region.
—What does the No. 18 mean for you?
Tanaka: The number has meaning for a pro, and that’s the one I was handed at the start of my career, so being the ace number, it has meaning for me. But rather than just wearing the number, I want to get results and set an example.
—You settled on a two-year contract. Why?
Tanaka: “We agreed on a two-year contract, but I received assurance we would talk after the season, and see where to go from there. I certainly can’t tell at this stage. Also, I feel I have unfinished business in America, and I haven’t given up on that, so they agreed on terms that would keep those options open. But without throwing away those goals, I really want to win a Japan championship here. But there are no guarantees in this world, so my first goal is to give it all I have for this season.”
—What are your thoughts about the Tokyo Olympics?
Tanaka: “I had thought it would be 2020, so I never thought I could play in. Then it was postponed, and now I have returned to Japan, so there is a chance to play. If I’m selected, I want to play. I competed at the Beijing Olympics and that ended in frustrating fashion. Then baseball was dropped from the Olympic program. But it’s back now and I want to win a gold medal.”
—It was said you are going to report to camp prior to the first exhibition game. What kind of training will you be doing until then?
Tanaka: “In my mind there are so many adjustments I need to make, the ball, the mound and so many things. Practice, life off the field, so many things are different so I’ll deal with them as they come along.”
—How do you see yourself helping out now that you are back in the disaster-hit region?
Tanaka: “Like everyone else here, I also want to do my best. But now that I am close by again, there may be many things I can do, and I want to do my best in whatever way I can. To start with, I want to work hard and make an effort so that people will see me at the ballpark, on the mound, doing well.”
—Who do you want to face in the Pacific League?
Tanaka: “I’ve been away for seven years, and so many batters have come up that I’ve never faced, so it’s hard for me to say by name, but there definitely are some tremendous players, and I’m looking forward to playing against them.”
—SoftBank’s Yuki Yanagita said he disliked the idea of facing you…
Tanaka: “Yangita and I are the same age. I saw that story but we haven’t spoken. I faced him and he batted .500 off me, so I think that’s probably just lip service on his part.”
—Both you and manager Ishii began their pro careers under manager Katsuya Nomura. Do you feel this is fate?
Tanaka: “Honestly, I never thought about it. But when you mention it, both he (Ishii) and I played in the States, played the same position as pitchers, so I there will be things I need to adjust to that he can advise me on.”
— Manager Ishii?
Ishii: “I still have more career wins than he does (184-177). When he gets his wins, then I’ll say, ‘Hey, Masahiro.’ Until then, I’ll call him ‘Tanaka-kun’ (young mister Tanaka).'”
—Eight years ago, you played catch with your former manager Nomura just before you left for the States. Now that you’re back what memories do you have of him?
Tanaka: “At that time I felt he was the last person to catch me in Japan. Nomura was my first pro manager, and I have so many deep emotions regarding him.”
—Is there something manager Nomura taught you that sticks with you?
Tanaka: “First of all it’s essential to remember that the pitcher is the starting point, and that stays with me, and I still practice to execute pitches low in the zone.”
—Did anything overseas match the Eagles’ 2013 Japan Series championship for emotional impact?
Tanaka: “Over there is different so one can’t really compare, but the excitement and sense of reward is the same as here. I don’t compare those emotions, but the 2013 championship remains a highlight of my career. Even though I spent seven years playing abroad in America, I have a video I watch before every start to psyche myself up and raise my concentration, and someone included in that the instant when we became Japan champions.”
—What would you like to report to your late managers, Nomura, and (Senichi) Hoshino. What would you’d like to say to them?
Tanaka: “I suppose right now, I’d say, ‘I’m back.’ The best thing would be to report to them at the end of the year that we are champions.”
—We get the impression here that there is so much information available to players in the majors. Is there anything you learned there you would like to employ here?
Tanaka: “Before I answer, I have to say that my knowledge of where Japan is stopped seven years ago. So I can’t say. But there’s no mistaking the volume of available data over there is amazing, and both batters and pitchers make use of it.”
“For me personally, prior to the 2017 season I had looked at how batters responded to different pitches, what they were waiting for, what they were swinging at. But there came a turning point in the 2017 season, when I went through a really trying time, and thought I needed to look deeper into the data, and from then it became more central to my approach.”
—Are there any individual titles or numerical targets you are obsessed with getting?
Tanaka: “The title I am obsessed with is winning the Japan championship. If I pitch well, good numeric results will come with that, but honestly trying to surpass that impressive 2013 season that remains stopped in time, frozen in everyone’s memory, is a worthy quest, so I want to contribute to as many wins as I can in that pursuit.”