No. 3? Tanaka came here to be No. 1

Ralph Kiner

NEW YORK -- Fear not, New York Yankees fans, for Masahiro Tanaka has no plans to perform within the boundaries of Brian Cashman's conservative projection. A man who rents out a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on a whim, charters it for his wife, his toy poodle and a few fortunate others for the flight from snowy Tokyo to snowy New York, is a man who sees a lot of things when he looks into his mirror in the morning.

A No. 3 starter is not one of them.

"There weren't many [planes] to choose from," was Tanaka's explanation Tuesday -- through an interpreter -- of the $195,000 gift to himself after the nightmare commute to Narita Airport, reported to be in excess of eight hours. If he wanted to pitch for the biggest team in the biggest market, hey, why not touch down in the biggest available plane?

At the start of a Yankee Stadium news conference the team called its largest since Hideki Matsui's in Times Square in 2003 (take that, A-Rod, 2004), Cashman said he couldn't help but think on the drive in that the old man, George Steinbrenner, would've been proud of the occasion.

Chances are, the Boss would've been most proud of Tanaka's apparent opinion of himself. Steinbrenner ended up calling his own prized recruit, Hideki Irabu, a crude name after the advertised "Nolan Ryan of Japan" fizzled out, and the owner was never fun to be around when he suspected one of his pitchers didn't have the requisite fire to win in New York.

But at 25, coming off a 24-0 season back home, Tanaka projects no such vibe of uncertainty. The Yankees delegation that met with him on the recruiting trip to Los Angeles came away thinking the right-hander planned on being something beyond the ace of the staff.

"The way he talked," team president Randy Levine said, "it was clear that he wants to be the best, that he wants to prove he's one of the greatest pitchers in the world. He didn't say it in an arrogant way, just in a confident way. And that's why he wanted to come here."

Tanaka wasn't going to say it in any language at the Stadium, but he has no interest in being what Cashman called him Friday on ESPN Radio -- "a solid, potential No. 3 starter." Asked if he considered himself an ace, Tanaka said, "Being an ace is something that ... other people label. Basically, what I just want to do is go out there and compete and do my best."

Only Tanaka said plenty more with his grand entrance at JFK than he could in his first comments in a Yankees jersey and cap. Landing in his outsized Japan Airlines jet, Tanaka was as inconspicuous as a Wild West cowboy barreling through the swinging doors of a saloon. Now it's time to start firing away and, frankly, to start the process of taking CC Sabathia's job.

Some teams competing against the Yankees for Tanaka's services assured him he could "transition" into their rotations. "He didn't like that," Levine said. "He wanted to take the ball on Day 1, and that told us a lot about him."

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