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The end of the Masahiro Tanaka era is modern baseball at its finest

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I don’t know if you’re crying, but I definitely am.

Houston Astros v New York Yankees
How can you not love this smile?
Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

When thinking about my favorite teams and players, there are the obvious greats who come to mind. The likes of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte are all on the upper echelon of Yankees all-timers and even baseball greats, especially in the cases of Jeter and Rivera. Rooting for them comes with the territory of rooting for the Yankees or even just being a baseball fan. Then, there are those players who may not be considered on that same level, but as a fan, you just invest in them. They transcend the team.

These players are ones who I will defend until the end of time, and I feel a sense of personal obligation to protect even if they have no idea who I am. David Robertson and Didi Gregorius are a couple examples of Yankees who make up my list. Yet, the one who best represents this group for me is Masahiro Tanaka.

Tanaka has been a fantastic pitcher for the team, especially in the 2017-2019 postseasons, and his smile just warms my heart. I once compared Tanaka to the legendary Pokémon, Mew, saying “They’re adorable and I want to hug them both. Oh and they’re hella powerful.” And five years later, I stand by that sentiment. I’m not entirely sure when or why it happened, but I fell in love with Tanaka and am way too overprotective of him.

Pinstripe Alley veterans should be all-too-familiar with the “shoulda got TJS” saga. Year after year, I’ve dealt with his detractors when he’s done nothing except prove them wrong. Only now, Tanaka is officially no longer a member of the Yankees after agreeing to return to the Rakuten Eagles. This always felt like the most likely outcome and probably the second-most favorable. If he wasn’t going to continue suiting up for the Yankees, I’d rather him go home than see him pitch for another MLB team, especially one that could face the Yankees.

Meanwhile, this is a team that could really use a reliable starting pitcher to slot in behind Gerrit Cole if they’re serious about competing. And a “small market” team like the Yankees could use one who provides more value than he earns. Over his seven years he earned an estimated $140.5 million. His value over those seven years has been $150.8 million. Bringing Tanaka back made too much sense for the Yankees, and yet here we are. The richest franchise in the league crying poor and trying to avoid a luxury tax that is essentially peanuts for them.

Sure, the Yankees have done work to address the rotation, but it’s still nearly as unstable as it was before the moves for Corey Kluber and Jameson Tallion. Those two have combined for one inning last year and just 74 over the last two seasons. While I like those two moves in a vacuum, I don’t like those being the only moves to address a rotation that once again needs help. Bringing Tanaka back along with those two would have earned a lot of good will and added some stability, as unlike Kluber and Taillon, he has spent minimal time on the injured list over the past few years.

Again though, baseball has recently done so much to hurt its own brand. While the NFL, NHL, and NBA all have free agent frenzies as soon as the signing period opens, baseball is weeks away from spring training and both the best pitcher on the market and the defending NL home run leader are still unsigned while everyone is prepping for a labor war. TV and streaming service blackouts still exist for some reason when everyone and everything is moving digital. I’ve said it before, but I will never not be impressed with MLB’s desire to grow the game while simultaneously making sure no one watches.

Yes, COVID-19 hurt the world. Pandemics tend to do that. But MLB owners crying poor and refusing to spend money has nothing to do with the pandemic. This has been a problem for years. Actively trying not to win now for a false promise of “going for it” in the future has become the status quo. Of all the leagues, MLB is a business in the truest sense of the word. And because of that, it becomes harder to root for players, even though they’re the ones who make the sport worth watching.

If it wasn’t for the players who make the game exciting, we’re just watching a bunch of dudes hit a ball with a stick. But the players are the heart and soul of the games and the teams they represent. Yet as fans, we have to deal with owners who are solely concerned about their bottom line, and who’ve made it acceptable to move on from players we love. It’s so difficult to get invested in players when you never know when they’ll be gone.

The way the business of baseball has evolved, it’s difficult to be invested in players because of the unknown of whether or not they’ll stay. It’s not just the players who are in that “other tier” of players either. If Mookie Betts can be traded, don’t be surprised if Aaron Judge is wearing another uniform in a couple years.

Instead of rejoicing at the re-signing of Tanaka, or collectively being upset at his departure, the debate of whether or not this was a smart move rages on due to the Yankees’ self-imposed luxury tax threshold. I, for one, love rooting for Team Finances. Go Accountants!

Anyway, thank you for everything and best of luck, Masa. Maybe if you just got that darn Tommy John surgery, the Yankees would have been more interested. #SGTJS

This one really stings.