GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees renew an old rivalry during a mid-September interleague series this year, there is a distinct possibility that an entire country could be entranced.
That country would not necessarily be the United States.
If health prevails and stars align, there stands an outside chance that old middle school rivals and Japanese pitching stars Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees and Kenta Maeda of the Dodgers could face off against each other as pitchers. It has never happened.
Somehow, despite inspiring each other from opposite dugouts as kids, these two grand ships managed to keep passing each other in the night, at least when it came to a mound meeting.
Tanaka and Maeda knew each other’s accomplishments well, even if they didn’t quite know each other personally. They grew up attending nearby middle schools outside of Osaka and already were baseball royalty in the area at a young age. They didn’t become acquaintances until both turned professional in Japan.
When they were blossoming as middle school stars, though, Tanaka was a star catcher of the area while Maeda was the stud pitcher.
In fact, it was Maeda who went on to play for Team Japan in tournaments in their age group. Tanaka did not.
“I’ve always thought that he was a good rival or somebody that I could match someday,” Tanaka said through an interpreter from Yankees camp. “But he was on a team that was able to go to the finals in tournaments, so that was part of the reason he was picked as the ace of Team Japan in the age group.”
Maeda said he did face Tanaka, the hitter, on a number of occasions. It was a matchup Maeda did not take lightly, and he considered those meetings as moments that sharpened his focus and, perhaps, made him a better pitcher because of it.
“It was a good stimulation to have,” Maeda said through his interpreter from Dodgers camp. “He was the one that definitely represented the class of ’88 so it was good to have him be the leader of that group.”
Maeda is not referring to any graduating class of 1988, but instead the year they both were born. Maeda’s birthday is April 11, while Tanaka was born on Nov. 1.
Not to be lost in translation is that they each thought the other was the standard to match.
Tanaka quickly raised the stakes when he became a pitcher as his high school years approached and his profile exploded. But the change came when he moved to the northern part of Japan, some 900 miles away.
Tanaka became a dominating starter at Komadai Tomakomai High School, pitching in an epic 2006 high school national championship game that captured the attention of all of Japan. Quickly, it was Tanaka who became the ace pitcher of the age group.
Maeda’s pitching resume grew, as well, as the two headed toward professional careers. Maeda moved to the Japan Central League in 2008 with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, one year after Tanaka turned pro with the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japan Pacific League.
The Japan Central League and Japan Pacific League are the equivalent of Major League Baseball’s National League and American League, so while they were equal, they remained separate. For six consecutive seasons the duo pitched professionally in Japan, at the same time, but never had the occasion to match up against each other. They did get the chance to be teammates for Team Japan during the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
In 2014, Tanaka signed with the Yankees and two years later, Maeda followed his rival’s footsteps by making the move to MLB himself, but again, they are in opposite leagues. Tanaka was one of the first to congratulate his old rival.
“I got a text message from him, congratulating me on becoming a Dodger,” Maeda said. “We also talked about what to expect here once I came to the States.”
With his two years of experience in New York, not to mention the knowledge he has gained recovering from an elbow injury that required arthroscopic surgery in October, Tanaka had plenty of advice to give. But he kept a recent conversation to the basics.
“You’re here in a different country and it is obvious that there will be a difference with how things are,” Tanaka said of his advice to Maeda. “But the most important part is to be able to adjust to the baseball here, being able to make the adjustments. I told him that was one of the biggest things, or the biggest advice I can give."
Maeda has heeded the advice closely. Because of what Tanaka told him, as well as what others who have pitched in the United States after pitching in Japan have said, Maeda chose to follow the Dodgers’ workout program instead of bringing with him the one he used with Hiroshima.
Maeda, though, did limit himself to a 14-pitch between-start bullpen session this week, a lighter load that he typically used in Japan and felt was appropriate for the early stages of spring training.
Both Tanaka and Maeda are taking the appropriate strides to make sure they are healthy for the long season ahead, which would mean that both would be available for that three-day midweek series in New York in six months, one that could garner a lot of attention back home.
“I’m very much looking forward to pitching against him because I have never been able to,” Maeda said. “I never had that chance in Japan.”
They just had to travel nearly 7,000 miles to give it a chance at becoming a reality.
And if it does come to pass, would it become an impromptu national holiday in Japan?
Maeda laughed even before the question was translated to him.
“I guess if it did turn out to be like that, I guess a lot of people would watch,” he said with a grin.
ESPN.com's Andrew Marchand contributed to this story.