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The Ghost of Steinbrenners Past

The Yankees find their perfect pitcher.

By 1.24.14

UPI
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By now baseball fans, waiting eagerly for the return of the Grand Old Game as they put another log on the fire, know that the New York Yankees have broken the bank yet again, dumping $155 million on Masahiro Tanaka, a 25-year-old Japanese pitcher who has shown himself extremely proficient at getting outs against such as the Honshu Hares, the Yakult Swallows, and the Osaka Sage Hens. Tanaka posted an incomprehensible 24-0 record last year with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. In seven high-flying years with the Eagles, Tanaka was 93-35 with a 2.30 ERA.

One item that may well have signaled caution in any but the Yankees' lushly-funded and trophy-obsessed front office is the fact that Tanaka has never thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues. Hell, he hasn’t thrown a pitch in AA ball. He will essentially be on OJT this year at $22 million, taking the place in the Yankee rotation of Andy Pettitte, who retired (again) last year after a long and distinguished career. 

Tanaka may be the real goods. Perhaps he deserves to be one of the highest paid pitchers in the bigs. He may help pitch the Yankees back into the playoffs next year, their being in which Yankees officials and Yankee fans consider to be God’s will. Or perhaps Tanaka will be another overpriced and overhyped Nebbish from Nippon like Dice-K Matsuzaka, who the Red Sox imported in 2007 at a similarly nonsensical price. Dice-K proved not to be the world-beater the Sawks were looking for, turning in a mediocre 53-40 record with an unimpressive 4.52 ERA in six years with the Sawks and a partial year with the Mets. 

Most stories on the Tanaka transaction ignore some of the pricy frills that go along with Tanaka’s gaudy salary. In addition to the $155 million in salary and the $20 million transaction fee the Yankees had to pay Tanaka’s Japanese team just to talk to him (an amount three times the Eagles' annual payroll), the Associated Press reports the Yankees will Pay Tanaka a $35,000 moving allowance and an annual $100,000 housing allowance to be spent in New Yawk and Tampa (where the Yankees train in the spring). Not surprising I guess. New York is an expensive place to live. It must be difficult to find a comfy, quiet apartment in a crime-free neighborhood there on $22 million a year.

The final stocking-stuffer is the $85,000 a year for an interpreter. Again, not hard to understand. English is not an easy language to learn. The Sawks provided Dice-K with an interpreter too. He needed it. When Dice-K first arrived, Sawks catcher Jason Varitek said Dice-K knew about 30 words of English. And 20 of them were “okey-dokey.” But Dice-K’s interpreter did more than just talk. Hideki Okajima was a relief pitcher who did more to help the Sawks from the mound than Dice-K did. In five seasons with the Sawks and one with the Athletics, Okajima relieved in 266 games and posted a respectable 3.09 ERA.

Tanaka is just one exhibit in the Yankee’s off season spending, which totaled $471 million in commitments to free agents. Pinstripe payroll will be north of $200 million in 2014. Expensive new Yankees include Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and senior citizen outfielder Carlos Beltran. Ellsbury is the priciest at $153 million for seven years.

The Ellsbury deal puzzles many baseball fans, including me, because the Yankees already had (and have) a fine center-fielder in Brett Gardner. The speedy and underrated Gardner hits for a decent average, steals bases, and plays a solid center field. Last year Gardner had 51 extra-base hits, Ellsbury 48. And, in these days when pitch count is so important, it’s good to have a guy like Gardner in the lineup who can foul off 20 straight pitches. You can get two strikes on him when he’s hacking. But getting the third one can be a trial. He can be a real pest at the plate and on the bases.

The McCann acquisition makes sense. The pin-stripes get a good defensive catcher who is also a lefty power-hitter. The major money for Ellsbury raises questions. Even for the Yankees, $153 million is a lot just to keep another team, not least the Red Sox, from enjoying the services of a solid but not sensational center fielder. A baseball-savvy friend suggested the answer to this puzzling deal is the ghost of George Steinbrenner hovering over the Yankee check-book. This is as good an explanation as I’ve heard.

For a couple of years it looked like son Hank Steinbrenner was going to be a bit more parsimonious with team money than the profligate dad. The late George never met an available trophy player he didn’t want on his team, whether or not the player met any need the team had at the moment. He was like a magpie in this regard – attracted to shiny things. But a “thrifty” Yankee team did not make the playoffs last year for only the second time in the last 19 years. And in the Bronx, this just won’t do.

So, welcome to the Big Apple, Masahiro. Today’s English vocabulary word is, “fuggedaboutit.”

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.