I don’t think there was ever a time when the Yankees weren’t seriously pursuing Masahiro Tanaka, but no matter how much they wanted him, there’s no way they could have predicted how invaluable he would become.
Let’s imagine you had a time machine. Because you would be ethically opposed to using this machine to make millions in the stock market or to win every sports bet on the board, you’d instead choose to blow people’s minds. Armed with newspapers and magazines and photographs, you’d pop up in various places to give people glimpses of the future, just for fun. For example, you might show up in this photograph and have a conversation with Governor Wallace: “You see, Governor, in my time the President of the United States is Barack Obama.” Or you might check in with Billy Ray Cyrus in 1992, drop off a VHS copy of the 2013 VMAs, and suggest that he keep a close eye on his unborn daughter’s career path.
Or you could simply go back to November of last year and pop in on Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
Cash: Who let you in here?
You: We don’t have time for that. You MUST sign Masahiro Tanaka.
Cash: Well, it’s not that simple. There’s the posting, the bidding war… And we DO have a budget…
You: You don’t understand. You MUST sign him. He’s our only hope.
Cash: Easy, Princess Leia. Our rotation is pretty solid. Tanaka would be a…
You: I know, I know “a third starter.”
Cash: Right! We expect big things from Nova, Pineda will be healthy, and CC’s our ace…
You: Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
Cash: Excuse me?
You: Nova will start four times, then have Tommy John surgery on April 29th.
Cash: Well, Pineda will be great — he’ll make everyone forget about Jesus Montero.
You: You’re half right. Everyone will forget about Montero, but let’s stay on topic. Pineda will be great for three starts, then he’ll be suspended for pine tar…
Cash: Pine tar? But everyone uses pine — I mean, our pitchers don’t use illegal substances!
You: And then he’ll go on the DL for a month.
Cash: Well, at least we’ll have our ace, right?
You: Sabathia? He hasn’t been an ace for two or three years now.
Cash: But he’s lost so much weight — he’s in great shape…
You: That just means that instead of looking like Forrest Whitaker, now he pitches like him.
You: And he’ll be on the DL by the middle of May with no estimated return.
You: By Memorial Day your rotation will be Tanaka, Kuroda, Phelps, Nuño, and Whitley.
Cash: Whitley? Who the hell is Whitley?
Cash: Dear God.
Cash: But what do I do? How do I stop this?
You: Sign Tanaka. Give him whatever he wants. He’s your only hope.
And then you’ll invite Cashman to watch a DVD of Sunday afternoon’s game against the White Sox as your final argument. It’s the only evidence you’ve brought with you, so hopefully it will be enough to convince Cashman to do what he has to do. You crack open a couple beverages, slide the DVD into the machine, and guide Cashman through the game.
After Brett Gardner grounds out for the game’s first out, Derek Jeter comes to the plate and rifles a clean single to right center.
Cash: Look at this guy. He looks the same as he did two years ago. Guess I’m gonna be back at the table negotiating with him in November.
You: Actually he’s going to announce his retirement when Spring Training opens up. This is his last season.
Cash: Are you shitting me?? That’s great! Wait — you’re not a reporter are you? Are you gonna print that?
In the top of the second Yangervis Solarte singles to right to start a Yankee rally.
Cash: I was starting to believe you, but you’re telling me that this guy is our starting third baseman? And he’s hitting over .300? He has 25 RBIs? I call bullshit.
You: I know, I can’t believe it either, but keep watching.
Two batters later Ichiro singles up the middle, then Brian Roberts walks to load the bases for Gardner, who promptly singles in two runs. Jeter is up next, and he singles to right field again to make it 3-0 Yankees.
Cash: You’re sure he’s retiring? Brendan Ryan can be our shortstop now?
After Jacoby Ellsbury scores Gardner on a sacrifice fly, the Yankees have a 4-0 lead.
You: We’re gonna skip ahead to the top of the 4th. It’s still 4-0, but I want you to watch Jeter’s at bat here. Watch how he falls into an 0-2 hole, then takes a ball before fouling off three pitches. Okay, now watch this…
Jeter catches a pitch on the inside part of the plate, but somehow he does what he always does — he pulls his hands in and still manages to get inside the ball and drive it deep to right center field. Center fielder Adam Eaton races into the gap, but his dive is far short, and the ball bounds to the fence. Jeter coasts into third base with his first triple since 2011.
You: Did you see that? He actually broke it down a step before second base. He’s so cool he Cadillacked a triple.
Cash: So Brendan Ryan can really be our shortstop next year?
You: Focus, man. He’s gonna come home on a wild pitch in a minute to make it 5-0, but let’s take a quick look at your boy Tanaka.
In the bottom of the fourth Tanaka strikes out Gordon Beckham, gives up his first hit of the game when Conor Gillaspie singles to left, but rebounds to get Dayan Viciedo to foul out and Adam Dunn to ground out. In the fifth he gets Paul Konerko to ground into a double play and ends the frame by striking out Alejandro De Aza.
Cash: You’re right — he looks really good.
You: But here’s what you’re not getting — even though he’s gonna go 6.2 innings and allow just one run on five hits and two walks with six strikeouts, you’re not seeing him at his best. This is just average Tanaka, and it’s still better than anyone else on the staff. Do you understand what I’m saying?
Cash: But the payroll…
You: NO ONE CARES ABOUT THE PAYROLL!
Cash: Look, after we resign Canó, we’re going to be really limited…
You: We’ll talk about Canó later. Right now, let’s get back to the top of the sixth.
Alfonso Soriano doubles over Eaton’s head in centerfield, but he’s still standing on second with two outs when Jeter comes to the plate again.
Cash: Don’t tell me.
You: I’ll let you find out for yourself.
On a 3-1 count Jeter pounds a ball through the center of the diamond to drive in Soriano and pick up his fourth hit of the game.
Cash: So you’re saying he’s retiring? Do you think maybe I’ll be able to convince him to come back for another year?
You: Maybe you can try to get Rivera back while you’re at it.
Cash: That’s not a bad idea…
You: And Torre?
Cash: Let’s not get crazy.
Tanaka finds himself in some trouble following the seventh-inning stretch. He walks Dunn and gives up a single to Alexei Ramírez, then Konerko ropes a line drive — that Jeter snares and turns into a double play when he catches Dunn straying off second.
You: See? He’s still got that Gold Glove form!
Cash: Let’s not get crazy.
Tanaka walks De Aza, and Joe Girardi pulls him in favor of Adam Warren, who quickly strikes out Tyler Flowers to end the inning. You eject the DVD.
Cash: What are you doing? What about the rest of the game?
You: It’s not important. Brian Roberts hits a solo homer, some guy named Matt Daley gets the final three outs, and the Yankees win, 7-1.
Cash: Still, it would’ve been nice to see. I love when they walk out on the field to shake hands, I love when John Sterling screams out, “Yankees win! Thuuuuuuuuuh…”
You: Look, Cash, stay with me. It isn’t about this game. It isn’t even about Derek Jeter, if you want to know the truth. (Okay, it’s a little bit about Derek Jeter.) But mainly it’s about Tanaka. If you don’t sign him, if you don’t do everything in your power to make sure he’s in pinstripes, this season will be a complete disaster. You need this guy. We need this guy. So much depends on Masahiro Tanaka!
Cash: Okay, okay, you convinced me. I’ll get him. And what were you saying about Canó?
[Photo Credits: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images & Sim McIsaac/Getty Images]