The major leagues' ERA leader boards have a bit of a Far East
flavor to them, with Hideki Irabu of the Yankees sitting atop
the American League with a 1.48 mark through Sunday and Masato
Yoshii of the Mets fifth in the National at 2.33. While the two
Japanese righthanders are enjoying similar results in the Big
Apple this year, the paths they followed to get there were very
different. Yoshii's transition has been as smooth as a silk
kimono. Irabu's couldn't have been bumpier.
Irabu came to the U.S. last spring overhyped, overweight and
with a hefty price tag ($12.8 million for four years), but his
performance left teammates, fans and the media wondering how
somebody so highly touted could be so lousy. In short, he was
1997's version of Godzilla, replete with the big guy's surly
streak. He so offended New Yorkers that fictional Yankees fan
Frank Costanza lashed out at the George Steinbrenner character
in last month's Seinfeld finale, screaming, "How could you spend
$12 million on Hideki Irabu?"
With little fanfare, the Mets' Yoshii is
There was irony in singling out Irabu as a target that night,
because while millions of Americans were watching the sitcom's
swan song, the much-maligned 29-year-old pitcher was holding the
Rangers scoreless for seven innings, yielding just three hits.
Irabu's 1998 season has been stellar, but it was his '97
campaign that raised the ire of Yankees fans. During the much
publicized negotiations to bring him to New York (Irabu's rights
were held by the Padres, for whom he refused to play), the
pitcher was constantly referred to as the Nolan Ryan of
Japandespite having only a 59-59 record in nine seasons. In
late April '97, San Diego accepted two prospects and $3 million
from the Yankees for the rights to Irabu plus three minor
leaguers. It took Steinbrenner five weeks to sign him, but once
the deal was done Irabu was heralded as the savior of the
defending world champs, who had fallen far behind the
front-running Orioles. Because he came to the Yankees well into
the season, he had no opportunity to ease into the clubhouse
routine and struggled to fit in with 24 players he didn't know.
"Last year he felt like an outsider," says outfielder Chad
Curtis. "He tried to portray himself as this tough, immovable
force." A few bad outings and some untoward behavior on the
fieldin Milwaukee, for instance, he spit while walking off the
field after being yanked from a game, apparently in response to
booing by Brewers fansled to nasty headlines, and he was
eventually sent to the bullpen. He finished the year 5-4 with a
Overblown and overweight a year ago, Irabu leads the
American League in ERA.
This year Irabu has been with the team since spring training,
and feels more at home. Most days he and Curtis, who lives in
the same New Jersey apartment complex, make the 15-minute drive
across the George Washington Bridge to Yankee Stadium, chatting
about baseball, road trips and even religion. "When I met my
teammates this year, it was a whole different atmosphere," Irabu
says through an interpreter. "I was able to get to know them a
lot better during the spring. Just being able to go out to
dinner with some of my teammates has had a big effect on my
Yoshii, meanwhile, slipped into New York quietly, with no
advance billing and few expectations. It probably helped that
the Mets have played second fiddle to the Yankees in recent
seasons, but the 33-year-old native of Osaka also did not have
the reputation that Irabu had in Japan.
Yoshii turned down a four-year, $8 million offer to stay in
Japan, opting to sign with the Mets for $200,000 for this
season, because, he says, "No matter how much money you have,
you can't pay a major league team to put you on the roster."
Yoshii picked New York knowing full well the kind of criticism
Irabu suffered, but he was probably more worried about getting
mugged than getting skewered in the papers. "Before I came over
here, I heard about New York in magazines and news reports,"
says Yoshii, who also speaks through an interpreter. "New York
is portrayed in Japan as dangerous. But it's probably safer than
Yoshii, who was 4-1 at week's end, has avoided the headlines in
his first season by being everything Irabu wasn't. Whereas Irabu
relies on his fastball and an improving curve, Yoshii depends
more on control and finesse. "He's a Chevrolet, and he doesn't
pretend to be a Cadillac," says Mets pitching coach Bob Apodaca.
If he's asked, manager Bobby Valentine, who managed in Japan in
1995, gushes about how impressively Yoshii pitched against the
Yomiuri Giants in front of a packed, hostile Tokyo Dome crowd.
"He's pitched in games as big as you could pitch anywhere in the
world," says Valentine. But the Mets had the sense not to
inflate expectations for Yoshii before he had thrown an inning,
and that has paid off.
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Issue date: June 8, 1998