MLB: On rented 787, Tanaka makes a ‘so Yankees’ entrance
Published: February 11, 2014 09:56AM
Updated: February 25, 2014 04:39PM
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FILE - In this March 11, 2009, file photo, Japan's Masahiro Tanaka pitches to the San Francisco Giants during an exhibition baseball game in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

A Japan Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner, capable of carrying nearly 200 people 7,850 nautical miles, touched down at Kennedy International Airport in New York on Sunday afternoon with only six passengers, including an ace pitcher, his pop star wife, a personal manager and a toy poodle named Haru.

The unusual flight manifest was not a joke, but the grand entrance of Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees’ flamboyant Japanese pitcher who put his newfound dollars to immediate use.

Eager to avoid a snowstorm and arrive in New York in time for his introductory news conference Tuesday, Tanaka rented the plane from JAL for an estimated $200,000. Not even Reggie Jackson made such a colorful entrance to New York when he signed as a free agent with the Yankees in November 1976.

It is unclear whether Haru had his own seat, but there were nearly 200 empty ones from which to choose.

“Totally over the top,” said Robert W. Mann, an aviation consultant. “So Yankees.”

But the Yankees did not participate in Tanaka’s decision to charter a commercial jet, and their most affluent players tend to use private jets rather than fly on commercial airlines. Tanaka’s new $155 million contract calls for a certain number of first-class tickets between Japan and the United States a year, so he will be reimbursed the equivalent of the price of the first-class ticket.

Carol Anderson, a spokeswoman for JAL, confirmed that a flight was chartered from Tokyo to JFK on Sunday but would not reveal the cost. She said the plane returned to Tokyo as a ferry flight, meaning it refueled, turned around and flew back empty, perhaps with a few extra dog hairs.

When the Yankees signed Tanaka last month from the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, questions immediately arose about how he would make the adjustment to major league baseball. Would he take to the baseball used in the United States or the mound? Would he be able to handle the schedule and the increased travel? How would he handle the bigger hitters?

If nothing else, he has demonstrated resourcefulness.

Tanaka’s commute to Narita Airport from his hotel in downtown Tokyo — usually a two-hour journey — took 8½ hours. Trains were not running and the highways were impassable, according to reports in Japan, and Tanaka’s driver was forced to use tiny, snow-covered surface roads to reach the airport.

As is customary for most Japanese baseball players traveling to and from Japan, a news conference was set up at the airport before his departure. Dozens of reporters representing Japanese media were at JFK on Sunday to record his arrival and photograph the boxes — some labeled for New York, others for Tampa, Fla., the team’s spring training facility — stacked in the luggage area.

At Narita, Tanaka’s personal manager, Yoshiki Sato, said that with bad weather approaching the metropolitan area they thought it best to charter the plane in advance. That way, they would not have to worry about cancellations or missing the flight. He said Tanaka needed to get to New York in a manner befitting a major league player.

Mann, the aviation consultant, said Tanaka could probably have found a less conspicuous way to fly from Tokyo to New York. Flying 5,870 nautical miles is easily within the range of several smaller private jets, including the Gulfstream G-V, G550 and G650 and the Bombardier Global 6000, he said.

Those planes can fly the distance nonstop, depending on wind and payload, and in the event of unfavorable wind, a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, is often part of the flight plan. It is believed the JAL charter took less than the usual 13 hours because of the lighter payload. Without the many additional passengers, their luggage and the fuel needed to carry them, the plane is believed to have made the trip to JFK in less than 11 hours.

That makes sense, because the scouting report on Tanaka emphasizes his ability to increase his velocity when needed.