On January 28, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles fans must have felt like Christmas had arrived 11 months early when their club announced that it had signed Masahiro Tanaka to a two-year deal. Tanaka’s return to the Eagles lineup comes after a seven-year stint in Major League Baseball with the New York Yankees, where the right-hander was consistently impressive in pinstripes.
But despite his Stateside success, his unbreakable bond with the people of Japan’s northern Tohoku region and ambition to return the Eagles to glory have gifted Eagles fans with a Masahiro Tanaka who is more motivated than ever.
Tanaka is serious about his return to Japan. Speaking to reporters, Tanaka said, “I do not regard this as a stopgap arrangement… I am determined to lead the team to become the champion in the Japan Series.”
There may be more things I can do to inspire peopleMasahiro Tanaka, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Tanaka returns to an Eagles squad seeking to recapture the form that saw it capture its inaugural Japan Series championship in Tanaka’s final season with the club in 2013. But Tanaka’s arrival has set expectations aloft for 2021 and they’ll look to him for his leadership, durability and the dependably strong performances he became known for in Yankee pinstripes.
A proud Yankee legacy
Tanaka departs the Yankees as a bonafide legend. Across his seven years in Major League Baseball — all with the Yankees — Tanaka was one of the most dependable and durable starters in the game: Only 17 pitchers started more games between 2014-2020. In total, Tanaka made 174 appearances for the Yankees (173 as a starter), racking up a record of 78-46 with a 3.74 earned run average (ERA) and a postseason record of 5-4 with a 3.33 ERA. Reflecting on his tenure as a Yankee, local media praised Tanaka as “a pro’s pro who earned every cent of his contract with dignity and performance.”
The remarkable 2013 season
Tanaka’s record with the Yankees looks great by any standard, unless perhaps when you compare it to the staggering numbers he put up over his first seven years as a pro with the Eagles. Between 2007-2013, Tanaka amassed a win-loss record of 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA. In his final season with the Eagles in 2013, Tanaka was virtually unhittable, going a perfect 24-0 in the regular season with a 1.27 ERA and setting numerous records along the way.
Buoyed by Tanaka’s leadership and dependability, the Eagles reached the Japan Series in 2013. Heading into game six, with Tanaka scheduled to start, the Eagles were poised to clinch their inaugural championship. But then something remarkable happened — Tanaka lost. Despite the game six loss, which also ended his record-breaking win streak at 30 games, Tanaka proved his mettle when he returned the following night as the Eagles’ closer to clinch the series victory. It was a dramatic and memorable finish that symbolized not only Tanaka’s resiliency, but also epitomized the spirit of Japan’s Tohoku region as it continued to recover from the damage caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011.
While there is no doubting Tanaka’s ambition to return the Eagles to glory, his true motivation runs deeper than a simple competitive drive to be a champion.
In 2013, he witnessed first-hand how a team can serve as a symbol of hope for so many fans. The Eagles’ championship in 2013 was a cathartic moment for the Tohoku region and it forged an unbreakable bond between Tanaka and the people of northern Japan. Now, a decade after disaster devastated the region, that bond has called back one of its favorite sons to help its team make another run.
“It has been ten years since the disaster and that was a number that meant something to me,” Tanaka said. “There may be more things I can do to inspire people by being closer to them than I was.”
Opening night of the 2021 Nippon Professional Baseball season is on March 26, and we can hardly wait.