By Ronald Blum
AP Baseball Writer
TAMPA, Fla. — Masahiro Tanaka is just one of the guys now.
Tanaka says he can walk the streets unnoticed in Manhattan, strolls that are impossible for him to take in Tokyo.
He uses some of his down time to golf and to fish for bass.
As he enters his third season in the major leagues, the New York Yankees ace can communicate with his teammates in English.
Now 27, he’s acclimatized to life in the major leagues, the United States and the Big Apple.
“I’ve really gotten used to everything here, so I guess it’s a little bit more easier for me,” he said.
Tanaka speaks with media through Shingo Horie, his translator since his arrival. And while the Yankees rely on Horie for detailed baseball conversations — “the little nuances of the language,” according to pitching coach Larry Rothschild — Tanaka can hold his own with small talk. The Yankees say Tanaka is more naturally gregarious than Hiroki Kuroda, a Japanese starter who pitched for the Yankees from 2012-14.
“He likes to have fun. He’s a funny guy,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s always smiling and laughing. He’s good to have in the clubhouse.”
Tanaka was a star when he arrived two years ago, going 24-0 in his final season with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Golden Eagles and chartering a Boeing 787 Dreamliner for his trip from Tokyo to his introductory news conference in New York. The Yankees signed him to a $155 million, seven-year contract and paid a $20 million fee for his rights.
Slotted fourth into the rotation at the season’s start, he pitched like a No. 1. Tanaka went 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA in his first 14 starts and was 12-4 with a 2.51 ERA when he was put on the disabled list July 9 because of partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow ligament. General manager Brian Cashman said a trio of orthopedic surgeons recommended against career-interrupting Tommy John surgery.
After more than two months of rehabilitation, Tanaka returned to make two more appearances for the Yankees and finished his rookie season 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA in 20 starts. With his fastball still averaging about 93 mph, he went 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 24 starts last year, when he was sidelined between April 23 and June 3 because of wrist tendinitis and a forearm strain in his pitching arm.
He was picked to start the Yankees’ return to the playoffs after a two-year absence and allowed two runs and four hits over five innings in a 3-0 loss to Houston in the AL wild-card game. On Oct. 20, Dr. David Altchek operated to remove a bone spur from Tanaka’s right elbow, an injury the Yankees said dated from his time in Japan.
“I think he’s very comfortable pitching in the major leagues,” Yankees catcher Brian McCann said. “I think being around each other, you understand what he’s trying to do on the mound, what he can and can’t do. Our communication is great. It’s been great since Day One.”
Tanaka relies mostly on fastballs, splitters, sinkers and sliders, although he does mix in some cutters and curves. After two seasons, he knows the batters better.
“But at the same time, they have my data,” he said. “So it kind of goes both ways.”
This season will be a bit more hectic off the field. Tanaka’s wife, pop star Mai Satoda, had their first child in February, a son.
“I feel blessed to have a new member to our family,” he said. “Yeah, there should be differences, just going through everyday life.”
Like most major leaguers, he has his routine. He can disappear away from Yankee Stadium into the anonymity of life in a big city.
“I think being Japanese or being Asian, I think it’s a place that’s kind of easy to live because of having restaurants and shops and stuff like that,” he said.
And aside from seeing Tanaka fool batters with his assortment of pitches, Brett Gardner wants to gauge what Tanaka can hook in the water with a rod and a reel.
“We have plans to try and go fishing with him at some point,” the Yankees left fielder said, “so I’m looking forward to that.”