One of the more interesting comments made during new Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka's introductory press conference Tuesday came when the 25-year-old right-hander addressed the additional pressures he'll face this season as he takes on America's largest media market. Through his translator, Tanaka said:
"I've heard that [New York] can be harsh at times. I just wanted to put myself in this environment and see where I can go with my ability."
It's good to know that Tanaka is going in with an understanding of the intense scrutiny that will come his way and that he's ready to embrace it. The Yankees will have more than their fair share of new faces in 2014 and those players will all need to bear the brunt of a city that features four major daily newspapers, three regional cable sports programming networks and two all-sports radio stations. We've seen incoming free agents seem to wilt under that kind of pressure before - but is the hardship of playing before the New York media and the area's rabid and impatient fan base really all its cracked up to be?
The famous "can't handle it" cases of years past aren't hard to recall. Ed Whitson was coming off a 3.25 ERA/1.18 WHIP year in San Diego in 1984 when he signed a then-substantial five-year, $4.4 million deal with the Yankees. He proceeded to post a 5.38/1.64 line in the Bronx over a season and a half before being unceremoniously dumped midway through the 1986 campaign. In a 2010 interview with ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor, The small-town Tennessee-bred righty said of his time in pinstripes:
"It's like working in an office and your boss comes in and says, 'You suck,' after you've tried your best. Now multiply that by 50,000 bosses, all of them telling you that you suck, and imagine what that feels like."
Whitson's a member of a not-so-exclusive club of former Yankees who've been fairly or unfairly branded with the "not cut out for New York" iron. Kenny Rogers stunk things up for two seasons in 1996 and 1997 while leaving his teammates in deep holes in all three of his postseason starts. He was traded for Scott Brosius before 1998 and went on to post a then career-best 4.7 fWAR in Oakland to go along with a svelte ERA- of 69 and a WHIP of 1.18. Javier Vazquez was traded to the Yankees not once, but twice, and each time followed up arguably his best years with his worst. Vazquez's 5.09 ERA, 1.34 WHIP and 6.9 K-rate in New York pale in comparison to his career marks of 4.22, 1.25 and 8.0, and it wasn't just an AL vs. NL thing - he pitched three seasons for the Chicago White Sox and his fWAR never dipped below 4.9. A.J. Burnett was worth 7.7 wins in the two seasons before joining the Yankees and 7.0 in the two seasons after he left, sandwiching a misery-filled three year pinstriped tenure, during which he was worth just 5.4.
Hitters have felt the burn of the New York spotlight, too. Rondell White batted .291/.351/.484 with a wRC+ of 115 over his first ten seasons with the Expos and Cubs before donning the pinstripes in 2002 and plummeting into what we now know as Vernon Wells territory. A year later, the old Rondell was back as he managed three more quality years with the Padres, Royals and Tigers. Chuck Knoblauch was a four-time All-Star and a Gold Glove winner as a Minnesota Twin. During his four years in New York, despite winning three World Series rings, his OPS+ dropped to a pedestrian 100 and he lost the ability to make the throw from second base to first.
Can all that fail really be blamed on the big bad city? In the song New York, New York, lyricist Fred Ebb included the line "if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere," reminding us that the Big Apple is not an easy place to do well...anything. New York sports fans like to think that they're tougher, smarter and more sophisticated than everyone else, and that their athletes should be, too. Equating on-field struggles with lack of fortitude and mental weakness reinforces that, and to some, it's a more compelling story than chalking free agent flops up to bad logic, bad scouting and bad luck. Never mind that Whitson was a journeyman up-and-down pitcher with disturbingly low strikeout rates or that Rogers always put too many guys on base. Forget that most of these guys were in their early thirties when they came aboard - an age where most players begin their declines. Every team has bad signings on its resume but somehow no one blames the pressures of playing in Cleveland or Cincinnati.
Big city blues are used a cop-out a bit too often, but the idea that some players are more designed to excel in New York than others can't be thrown out either. Feeling comfortable, for athletes...for everyone, is important. Between the lines, baseball's essentially the same game whether it's played in New York or in St. Louis or on the moon (maybe not the moon - lack of gravity could cause some issues), but it's a game played by human beings, not robots. Being unhappy with where you live or what's being said about you, or what's going on in your life impacts how you do your job, whether you're a professional baseball player or not. How many 0-for-4's in history can be blamed on a nasty fight with the wife the morning of the game or one too many beers at the hotel bar the night before? How many bad seasons were caused by a guy hating his surroundings or losing confidence thanks to - as Whitson remembered - 50,000 people telling him he sucks?
The Yankees would love for every player to be Derek Jeter - possessing the ultimate poise and calm and the uncanny ability to talk for ten minutes without actually saying anything. Since that's not the case, their talent evaluations are often complicated by judgments on whether or not the unique environment they play in suits a particular personality. It's a totally inexact science that's led to some pretty sketchy conclusions at times on who is and isn't up to the challenges that New York presents.
Luckily, the players brought in this winter all seem pretty solid. Brian McCann is known as a tough-minded hard-ass, Jacoby Ellsbury played in Boston, where the media sometimes makes the New York press seem mild, and Carlos Beltran's already enjoyed a successful seven-year stint in the city. Tanaka's been described as stoic and unflappable - he's probably got more to worry about from the Japanese media than from their New York counterparts, anyway.