- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka was asked Sunday if there was a Yankees player he particularly admired and was looking forward to meeting.
The Japanese right-hander listened patiently to the translation, pursed his lips as he thought for a moment, and then answered.
“Off the top of my head, no," he said through an interpreter. “Actually no one comes up."
Since Tanaka had already met Derek Jeter, there was no blaring headline in the answer, and you could almost hear the sighs of relief from the Yankees' media relations staff that he didn’t say Alex Rodriguez.
But what Tanaka did say only reinforced the fact that a year from now, after Jeter retires, there isn’t likely to be a single player in the Yankees' clubhouse a newcomer to the team will say he has always wanted to meet.
Once Jeter is gone, the Yankees will still be a good team. The desires of ownership and the pressures of the New York market guarantee that will always be the case.
Unless, of course, Tanaka turns out to be as good as advertised.
Except for the promise of Tanaka.
There is still a long way to go before anyone can even begin to judge how good the 25-year-old will be in the major leagues, because there’s no one on planet Earth, neither superscout nor sabernerd, who can look at video of Tanaka dominating Japanese hitters and envision how the same stuff will translate against, say, Miguel Cabrera.
But there is a definite charisma about Tanaka, an easygoing charm in the face of the media hailstorm, that tells you if this kid turns out to be the goods, he could be the next Yankee other players will someday want to meet.
Not to denigrate anyone on the current Yankees roster, but most of them have either seen their best days (Jeter, CC Sabathia, Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, Hiroki Kuroda) or will never see days good enough to transcend being simply a competent major league ballplayer.
For now, anyway, the days of the Yankees having guys who seem as big as, or bigger than, the game are about to retreat into the past once Jeter leaves the clubhouse.
As good a player as Jacoby Ellsbury or Brian McCann turns out to be, neither seems to have that aura that made Jeter or Mariano special, that drew other players to them and brought fans into the ballpark.
Tanaka can do that -- provided he can come close to matching the kind of dominance he showed in Japan last year, when he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and led his club, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, to the Japan Series title.
For better or worse, Tanaka is likely going to be the new face of the Yankees for the next five years, if only because of the size of his contract -- $155 million -- and the size of his own personal media contingent, which is exceeded only by the size of his expectations.
For that kind of money, you can throw Brian Cashman's “reliable, consistent No. 3 starter" projections right out the window. Tanaka is likely to be either spectacularly good or spectacularly bad. Mediocrity simply does not figure to be in the cards for this player.
Sunday, Tanaka did no more than take pitcher’s fielding practice, a sham of a drill in which pitchers mime delivering a pitch and then practice sprinting to cover first base. PFPs, as they are known, are generally a collective yawn to the public and the media.
But when Tanaka took PFPs, he was watched by hundreds, as he was Saturday during his first bullpen session.
(By the way, Yankees officials confirmed the line drawn in the dirt Saturday to keep reporters a good distance away from the bullpen area was indeed a "Tanaka Line." Sunday, reporters were invited, encouraged even, to get as close a look as possible at David Robertson, the new closer, and Manny Banuelos, the boy wonder, as they threw their first bullpens of the spring.)
And afterward, his locker was once again mobbed, by not one but two crowds, first of English-speaking journalists and then by the Japanese contingent, characterized by a Yankees official as larger even than the one that followed Hideki Matsui around in his MLB rookie season of 2003.
By comparison, Sabathia, Robertson and Kuroda were virtually ignored.
That will change in a couple of days, when the regulars get here and especially on Wednesday, when Jeter holds his news conference to discuss his decision to retire after this season.
But Tanaka-palooza is guaranteed to resume shortly thereafter, no doubt peaking on the day he makes his first preseason start early in March.
After less than a week of training camp, it is obvious he is the most compelling figure in this camp, and aside from Jeter, is likely to be the most compelling figure on this team all season long, and probably for as many seasons as he chooses to remain a Yankee (his contract includes a player opt-out clause after four seasons).
Of all the players who will be on the roster after Jeter is gone, Tanaka is the one that a decade from now, a young player entering the Yankees' clubhouse for the first time might admit to a group of reporters he has always wanted to meet.
51mRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com
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1dRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com