The Cubs made their sales pitch inside the living room of a beautiful Beverly Hills home, trying to recruit the Japanese superstar who would have changed the entire vibe around this rebuilding franchise.
The Cubs will get an up-close look at what could have been when Masahiro Tanaka takes the ball on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. Tanaka (1-0, 3.21 ERA) wearing pinstripes in New York is the obvious, predictable ending.
[LOOK AHEAD: Cubs head to Yankee Stadium to battle Tanaka]
But it still had so many twists and turns, from the high-stakes negotiations between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball, to the will-they-or-won’t-they posting drama, to a secretive, anti-LeBron post-up for the prized free agent.
“I certainly wish he was in a Cubs uniform — I’d love to watch him out there,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But at the same time, I don’t think you can have regrets. We offered what we thought was an aggressive contract. We put our best foot forward, and ultimately the Yankees were more aggressive.”
The Cubs gathered in Southern California in early January, escaping a brutal winter where they stored up their resources for the 25-year-old pitcher. Tanaka had gone 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season, emerging as an ideal fit for the organization’s business/baseball plans.
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts sat in the meeting with Hoyer and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. Rick Renteria, the new bilingual manager, would eventually order Rosetta Stone tapes to learn some Japanese. Nao Masamoto, the major-league video coordinator and Pacific liaison, served as an interpreter.
“It was funny, because we assumed all along that he would go on a tour, and we would be one of the places (he’d visit),” Hoyer said. “When we got the call that it was going to be out in L.A., we were like: ‘Hey, that’s a really good thing. That definitely raises our odds.’ Because I think we were at zero percent if he had been in Chicago that week.”
All along — despite the Twitter rumors and Cubs Convention speculation — team officials predicted Tanaka would sign with the Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Cubs would eventually make a six-year, $120 million final bid, plus the $20 million release fee to Tanaka’s Japanese club. That’s crazy money for someone who had never thrown a pitch in the big leagues, with a right arm that already racked up more than 1,300 innings in Japan.
Or it’s simply the cost of doing business in a $9 billion industry. The Yankees blew the Cubs away as they try to dig out from the leveraged partnership the Ricketts family formed with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. in 2009.
“If there are good players out there and we are the high bidder, we’ll sign him right now,” Epstein said. “There’s never an ‘on’ switch. We were on Tanaka hard. If there are free agents out there worthy of it — and it looks like there may be — then we’ll be aggressive on those guys. But we’re never going to sign a player just to sign a player.
“We’re obviously interested in adding. The closer you are to winning, the more valuable those added wins are and the more you want to pay for them.”
‘The Dating Game’
Casey Close ran the show. Tanaka’s agent represents Derek Jeter and played with Barry Larkin at the University of Michigan before marrying Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. Close’s colleagues from Excel Sports Management joined the meeting, along with Tanaka’s entourage, which included a few interpreters.
Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers told Sports Illustrated: “It was like ‘The Dating Game.' (Tanaka) is sitting there on the couch and then, ‘Now it’s Bachelor Number 1!’ You come down and sell your entire organization in 15 minutes.”
Hoyer said the Cubs went for about an hour or 90 minutes, without bumping into any of the rival executives rolling through the house.
“It puts pressure on you to tell your story and to engage with the player in a short amount of time,” Hoyer said. “(Tanaka) came across as very serious and thoughtful. He certainly asked some good questions, and you got the sense that he was really interested in what teams were going to say.
“I don’t know how many teams had gone before us. (But) from a player’s perspective, that is a tiring process. You got all these people you don’t know presenting their team. He was really attentive and engaged.”
The Cubs handed out materials and showed a video that highlighted Wrigley Field as well as the city of Chicago, talking up an elite farm system and how Tanaka would become the marquee attraction at Clark and Addison.
The Tanaka rumors were going full blast when president of business operations Crane Kenney did his Cubs Convention stump speech on Jan. 18 inside a Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers ballroom. Kenney told fans and reporters that the Cubs generated the fifth-highest revenues in the game last season.
“We’re a really fortunate team to have the resources we do,” Kenney said during the media scrum afterward. “We hear the fans. They would like to see improvement at the major-league level. That improvement’s going to come, but it’s going to come through the system.
“Resources are available, and we are busy. I’m not going to comment on Tanaka or anyone else. That’s really Theo’s area. But we have resources. And when we need them, they will be there.”
Four days later, the Yankees announced their seven-year megadeal with Tanaka worth $155 million. Giving him an opt-out clause after the 2017 season would have been a non-starter for the Cubs and their competitive timeline. It never got to the point where the front office had to consider amending the no-trade policy.
The Cubs will see what all the hype was about on Tuesday night in The Bronx.
“Ultimately, in those situations, you have to go to a place where you feel comfortable,” Hoyer said. “We felt like we were aggressive. Obviously, in the end, the Yankees made a higher bid. If you’re being honest, the Dodgers and the Yankees always have the financial muscle to go that extra mile, and they did in this situation.”