In seven seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, Arvydas Sabonis averaged 12 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. His biggest accomplishments were being the NBA’s Player of the Week at the end of March in 1996, and finishing 12th in the league in total rebounds in 1997-98.
On Sabonis’ Basketball-Reference page, his most similar players are Steven Adams and Mehmet Okur, and his Hall of Fame probability is listed at 0.0%.
But, of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Sabonis has a rightful place in Springfield — recognizing a career that included two European Player of the Year honors, an Olympic gold medal with the Soviet Union and two Olympic bronzes with Lithuania.
If Cooperstown were Springfield, Masahiro Tanaka would be well on his way, but after spending the past seven years pitching for the Yankees, Tanaka is headed back to Japan to return to the Rakuten Eagles. He won’t even be eligible for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame — unless he returns — which requires players take part in 10 major league seasons to make the ballot.
Tanaka’s achievements Stateside are greater than what Sabonis achieved with the Trail Blazers. The right-hander was twice an All-Star for the Yankees, finished seventh in the 2016 Cy Young vote, and pitched himself into the Top 50 all-time in both WHIP and strikeout rate, as well as fifth all-time in strikeout-to-walk ratio, three spots ahead of non-Hall of Famer Curt Schilling on that list.
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That’s not to say that Tanaka would have a case for the Hall based on his MLB career if he’d stayed here for three more seasons. He wouldn’t. But that’s because Tanaka’s best seasons came before he ever put on the Yankee pinstripes.
From 2007-13, Tanaka had his first stint with the Eagles and dominated, going 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA and 1,238 strikeouts in 1,315 innings. In the last three seasons of Tanaka’s pre-MLB career, he went 53-9 with a 1.43 ERA, including a ludicrous 24-0, 1.27 season in 2013. The New York Times asserted on Thursday that Tanaka “never lived up to the hype” in New York, and that’s ludicrous, because who could repeat that kind of performance? Even in the Times’ tweet, it acknowledged that he was a two-time All-Star and four-time Opening Day starter.
Tanaka’s accolades in Japan include being the Pacific League Rookie of the Year in 2007, the MVP in 2013, a two-time Eiji Sawamura Award (Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young) winner, and the World Baseball Classic championship in 2009. Tanaka also pitched for Japan’s third-place team in the 2013 WBC, and for the team that finished fourth at the 2008 Olympics.
When you put together his accomplishments on both sides of the Pacific, it’s clear that Tanaka has a special place in baseball’s global history, a legend in Japan who excelled in America. In basketball, he would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. In baseball, unless there is sweeping change made to the way Cooperstown considers candidates, Tanaka’s career — without a Yankees World Series ring — will largely be an afterthought in America.
To be fair, it’s the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, whereas Springfield is the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a monument to the entirety of the game. But if baseball hopes to be more of an international game in the 21st century, maybe it’s time to rethink things.
What good is a museum that lionizes Cap Anson, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and Tom Yawkey, and that comes within 16 votes of inducting Curt Schilling, while leaving out Tanaka, Sadaharu Oh (Japan’s all-time home run leader), and Buck O’Neil? If the point of the Hall of Fame is to tell the story of baseball, we need to ask what the story is that’s being told. Tanaka should be a part of it.