By Sam Ceisler
As Trevor Raichura reported for JapanBall in early February, Masahiro Tanaka’s tenure with the New York Yankees has come to a close. Tanaka signed a new contract with his former team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, and returned to Japan for the 2021 baseball season. The right-handed pitcher was a fan favorite from the moment he arrived in New York, and although the Yankees failed to win a World Series during his time with the team, it’s clear that he’ll be missed.
While not as dominant as he was in Japan, in seven years with the Yankees, Tanaka totaled more than 1,000 innings pitched and almost as many strikeouts. He earned two MLB All-Star nominations, and more importantly, a special place in the hearts of Yankees fans and players alike.
Tanaka had especially close relationships with the Yankees pitching staff – specifically with Dominican pitcher Luis Severino. The two could often be seen goofing off together in the dugout. According to a story told by FS1 broadcasters during the Yankees 2017 ALDS matchup against the Cleveland Indians, Tanaka even urged Severino to write the word “Patience” on the inside brim of his hat as a reminder to keep calm and slow the game down.
When the hosts of Jomboy Media’s Talkin’ Yanks podcast asked Severino about Tanaka’s departure, Severino responded, “We’re going to miss him and his translator Shingo [Horie]. You can’t replace those two guys.”
In a press conference earlier this month, Gerrit Cole echoed much of the same. Despite only playing together for one season, Cole and Tanaka formed a tight bond that extended off the field. Late last October, Cole posted a photo of the two pitchers and their wives on a “double date” at a sushi restaurant.
“Wonderful person, wonderful teammate. I’ve been texting him quite a bit recently,” Cole said. “I do miss him. I miss his smile. I would love to play with him again.”
Yankees fans on Twitter have had similar reactions. One user posted a gif of Michael Scott crying. Another posted a gif of Jake Peralta saying, “Alright. I’m gonna go cry.” Others still said, “He will be missed,” and “Going to miss Masa.”
Gabe Sultana is a Yankees fan who runs a Twitter account called @FarewellTanaka. He started the account a year ago as a tribute to one of his favorite players. “Masa really was beloved by everyone,” Sultana said. “We all thought he’d for sure be back, so it was pretty shocking to find out this was the end.”
As a Yankees fan myself, I’ve been looking back fondly on some of Tanaka’s greatest moments in pinstripes. The first that comes to mind is game five of the 2017 ALCS, when Tanaka went seven shutout innings against the Houston Astros. The highlight of that game was his fifth inning strikeout of Josh Reddick, after which Tanaka pumped his fist and jumped off the mound with a roar. Another poignant Tanaka memory that stands out was his complete game shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays on June 17, 2019. He struck out ten and only allowed two hits on the day.
Of course, there also were a few scary moments during Tanaka’s tenure with the Yankees. In July of 2014, he suffered a partially torn ligament in his pitching elbow, forcing him to miss some time. Then, in early 2020, a preseason practice took a turn for the worse when a line drive off Giancarlo Stanton’s bat struck Tanaka in the head. He thankfully was able to walk off the field under his own power and was back with the team a few weeks later.
After this season, if Tanaka still feels he has some unfinished business in New York, most of us fans will welcome him back with open arms. Whether or not he gets that opportunity will depend upon how he looks this year for the Eagles and how well the Yankees do with their new pitching rotation. Sultana said, “If the Yankees have some more money to spend next offseason, why not bring him back? He’s a workhorse, fan-favorite, and you know what you’re going to get.”
Kyodo News reported that Tanaka will be the Eagles’ #2 starter this season behind veteran ace Hideaki Wakui. Tanaka will see his first regular season action on March 27, when the Eagles face the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. I’ll be rooting for Tanaka when that day comes, as will his former Yankees teammates. “As far as this year,” Cole said, “Huge Eagles fan. I heard they’re pretty good.”