At the end of last year, after Alex Rodriguez had been pinch-hit for and benched in the playoffs, speculation raged that he would be traded, cut or somehow removed from the Yankees’ roster. The only problem with any of those possibilities was that no team was willing to take his enormous contract, or so it was thought.
It turns out there was at least one, and if Rodriguez had been healthy and was willing to obtain an international work visa, he might be Japan’s problem right now.
Last November, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks reached out to the Yankees through an intermediary and expressed interest in obtaining Rodriguez, according to two baseball officials who were told of the informal inquiry.
The Yankees never engaged the Hawks in discussions because they knew it could not work for two obvious reasons. At the time, the Yankees knew that Rodriguez needed extensive hip surgery that would sideline him at least half the season. They would have been obliged to inform the Hawks, and at that point, their interest would almost certainly have crumbled.
But even more important, the Yankees knew there was no chance that Rodriguez would agree to the transfer at this point in his career. So the matter was simply dropped. A few weeks later, the Yankees announced that Rodriguez had a torn labrum in his hip and would require surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation.
If the Hawks were wondering why they had not heard back before that, they finally had their answer.
Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, said he would not comment on the matter, and Itaru Kobayashi, the Hawks’ general manager, did not return a telephone call. It is not known whether the matter was brought to Rodriguez’s attention.
The Yankees would be only too happy if they could get an American team to show similar interest.
Going into this season, Rodriguez had $114 million remaining on his contract over the next five years, but he is experiencing a rapid decline in production. Since February, he has been at the center of an investigation into a Miami clinic that has been accused of dispensing performance-enhancing drugs to several professional baseball players.
Only Rodriguez’s staggering contract was known to the Hawks at the time of their interest. But if ever there were a team willing to make a splash by trying to lure a star of Rodriguez’s magnitude to Japan, it would be the Hawks, a team owned by one of the most prominent technology companies in the country.
Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of SoftBank, has earned a reputation as a maverick for investing early and enthusiastically in broadband and Internet technology. SoftBank is in the midst of trying to buy a stake in Sprint, a wireless carrier, a bold move by Japanese corporate standards.
More than most, SoftBank has tried to innovate to turn a profit. The Hawks are regularly at the top of the attendance standings for their games at the Fukuoka Yafuoku Dome, which the team owns. Through May, the team was averaging almost 31,000 fans a game, the most in the Pacific League.
Most parent companies in Japan consider their teams promotional vehicles for their brands, and many are willing to lose tens of millions of dollars a year for the privilege. Managed for many years by Sadaharu Oh, Japan’s career home run leader, the team won the Pacific League pennant as recently as 2011.
It is unclear, even if Rodriguez was healthy and was willing to play in Japan, if the Hawks’ gambit would have worked. There is a long history of older major league stars going to Japan at the ends of their careers and fizzling out. Many Japanese clubs, burned by paying too much for declining stars, have shifted toward younger players and non-Americans, who are cheaper and often hungrier.
Rodriguez has been working out in Tampa, Fla., but is still at least several weeks away from returning. He is also facing the possibility of a suspension from Major League Baseball over the Miami clinic investigation. He is not expected to return until at least after the All-Star break, in July.