Lately in Major League Baseball there has been a strong wave of Japanese baseball players who have left their teams in Japan to come play in America. The most recent talent to arrive from Japan is Masahiro Tanaka who signed a monster 7 year, 155 million dollar contract with the New York Yankees. Why did he choose the Yankees though? A big reason was because of the Yankees winning tradition. However, there is another factor that helped him choose New York that people may have overlooked.
Tanaka is not the only Japanese player on the Yankees roster. 39 year old veteran starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda is also a native of Japan along with the 40 year old veteran outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. The Yankees are only the 15th team to have three or more Japanese players on their roster. Both of these seasoned veterans will definitely help Tanaka through his first season in majors, especially since both have been in the limelight before.
When Ichiro arrived to Seattle in 2001, he was the first Japanese position player to play for a Major League team. He was assigned the number 51 by the Seattle Mariners, but was hesitant to wear it because the number was previously worn by All star pitcher Randy Johnson. Ichiro sent a personal message to Johnson saying he will not “bring shame” to the uniform or number. And the rest is history. Now here he is today, after being traded to the Yankees last year, a hero in Japan and a trend setter for young Japanese Baseball players to follow.
Hiroki Kuroda was not as decorated as Tanaka as a pitcher in Japan. He struggled at times due to poor run support from his team, however was considered a “giant killer” because he pitched very well under the lights against the biggest teams in Japan. After making his mark in Japan, Kuroda signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2007. He was a consistent middle of the rotation starter for the Dodgers, however he battled injuries during his stay in L.A. In 2012, the Yankees came calling, and the man once known as the “giant killer” was snatched up by the Bronx Bombers during free agency. He has developed into a number 2 starter for New York and hopes to have a big year.
Before Kuroda and Ichiro in New York though there was “Godzilla”. Hideki Matsui, also known as Godzilla, was the first Japanese player to shine in New York. Matsui signed with the Yankees in 2002. In 2009, Matsui was named World Series MVP after his 6 RBI performance in Game 6 which ties a single game World Series record. Matsui, in some ways, helped the Yankees “recruit” Tanaka. When Yankees executive Brian Cashman went to visit Tanaka in Japan, he showed him a short video which previewed New York and the Yankee’s Stadium along with a brief closing message from Hideki Matsui.
After all of this history why wouldn’t you want to come play for one of the greatest organizations in baseball if you were Masahiro Tanaka? Not only will the experience of Ichiro and Kuroda help Tanaka this year, but their Japanese roots will also be huge. As we saw from the press conference, Tanaka’s English is not very strong. With Ichiro and Kuroda though, communication between teammates will be a lot easier.