You hear guffaws from the pinstripe schadenfreuders, the haters who rejoice every time an enormous expenditure by the New York Yankees turns bad. But nothing is funny about the elbow problems of Masahiro Tanaka. He is the latest pitching phenom to fade into injury limbo, perpetuating what now can be called a full-blown arm epidemic that positions yet another cloud atop Major League Baseball’s darkening future. There are enough reasons not to watch this sport, but one attention-grabber has been an influx of wonderful young players that has included dynamic, dominant pitchers.
Now, one by one, they are landing on the disabled list, prepping for TJ — remember when that stood for Tijuana, Mexico, and not Tommy John surgery? — and then a long recovery that may encompass a year or two. Tanaka has been diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and, for now, he won’t undergo surgery while the Yankees hope he’ll miss only a couple of months.
But if the rehab isn’t effective?
Masahiro Tanaka, meet Tommy John.
How do you say “Yankees are screwed’’ in Japanese?
Losing Tanaka is rough for the Yanks, who spent $175 million knowing the risk and now face missing the playoffs two straight seasons. But it’s a crueler blow for baseball, a sport that needs all the starpower possible to combat new summer competition once unimaginable. Ever think World Cup buzz in the U.S. would completely blow out interest in the baseball season? Or that NBA free agency — namely, the LeBronathon — would reduce baseball to a couple of mumbles and highlights on sportscasts? When Clayton Kershaw pitches, he rises above it all. When Tanaka pitched, he rose above it all in his rookie season, with an American League-leading 12 wins and a 2.51 ERA and an unhittable splitter.
But just as Matt Harvey’s arm blew out last year and Jose Hernandez’s arm blew out earlier this year, Tanaka becomes another gruesome statistic. We’re left to ask if the continuing collapse of brilliant pitchers will sabotage the sport’s popularity.
Baseball is overflowing with money, as we know, thanks not to Bud Selig but the DVD era of television. Sports networks will pay insane sums for live TV because it translates to bigger ad rates, and baseball provides 162 dates of live TV in 30 markets. You can watch “Mad Men’’ when you want and skip over the ads. So, while baseball has hit rock-bottom levels as a national TV sport and is struggling with attendance in several markets, the owners have stumbled into megaprofits. At some point, though, baseball will have to remain compelling to maintain eyeballs for even short periods, much less a seven-month season. Losing terrific young arms, year after year, isn’t the way to keep an audience.
Having scouted Tanaka for years, the Yankees knew he had been overused in Japan, with no stronger evidence than his 160-pitch game last fall. Of all active MLB pitchers, only Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain and Yu Darvish threw more pitches through their age-25 seasons than Tanaka, who has thrown 1,444 1/3 innings as a professional, per ESPN.com. But what were they going to do, not bid for him when they desperately needed starting pitching and when they charge outrageous prices at their baseball cathedral in the Bronx? They are the Yankees, so they had no choice. Billy Beane, with comparatively miniscule resources in Oakland, can gamble on a much cheaper Scott Kazmir and hit the jackpot.
If the Yankees could be faulted, it’s for allowing Tanaka to throw his vaunted splitter much too often at high velocity. That was a recipe for calamity. Then again, when the Steinbrenners are spending $175 million for a pitcher who somehow was helping the Yankees stay competitive in the mediocre AL East, do you blame Girardi for riding him?
We all long for the days when Nolan Ryan and, before him, Bob Gibson could throw wicked heat for years without a serious injury. Those days are gone, for reasons hard to explain beyond the pressure on kids — and the lack of proper instruction (see: mechanics) — from grade-school age on up. Every time Kershaw pitches, I am tempted to drop everything and watch history at Dodger Stadium, 13.7 miles from my oceanfront home, according to MLB.com’s At the Ballpark app.
But sometimes, I resist the urge because I don’t want to watch the latest episode in an ongoing horror movie, Invasion of the Elbow Snatchers.