A World of Weight
There's pressure, and then there's what awaits 28-year-old Hideki Irabu. Last Thursday the righthanded Irabu, erstwhile ace of the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan's Pacific League, signed a four-year, $12.8 million contract to pitch for the New York Yankees. The deal is the most lavish ever for a player without experience in the majors or the minors. To justify it—and to save face—Irabu must almost at once become not only a starter but also a star.
Last Friday the Yankees paraded "Irabu-san" before more than 100 sushi-sated members of the U.S. and Japanese media. Though he has never seen Irabu pitch in person or on tape, and though Irabu's career record in Japan was a modest 59-59, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has made it clear that after some tuning up in the minors, Irabu will be inserted into New York's starting rotation. The New York Post wasted no time raising the level of hype. The headline on its front page two days after Irabu's signing: THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES.
By paying Irabu so much and designating him a starter, Big Stein has guaranteed his prize acquisition a chilly reception in the Yankee clubhouse. Andy Pettitte, the Cy Young Award runner-up in 1996, earns $600,000. "It's a shame," Pettitte told The New York Times. "You'd think that they would take care of me before a Japanese pitcher." Added Kenny Rogers, whose spot in the rotation is in jeopardy, "Do we need Irabu?"
Nor is the 6'4", 255-pound Irabu likely to be treated gently by the Japanese press. In his native land he has been painted as a prima donna ever since demanding that the San Diego Padres, who had held his major league rights, swap him to the Yankees, a team with great marketing power in Japan. A headline in a Tokyo paper asked Irabu, ARE YOU BLINDED BY MONEY?
Already, Yankees fans are assuming that Irabu's projected call-up around the All-Star break will serve as the turning point for the World Series champions, who through Sunday were 30-25, eight games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East. With a fastball that hovers near 100 mph and a biting forkball, Irabu may well be more gifted than countryman Hideo Nomo, an All-Star with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "Once he pitches they will understand what all the fuss was for," says Marines pitcher Satoru Komiyama. "If he throws seriously he will be Number 1 in the world." New York Mets skipper Bobby Valentine, who managed Irabu in Chiba Lotte two years ago, likens Irabu's stuff to Roger Clemens's and believes Irabu can live up to that billing. But, Valentine cautions, "he won't have a lot of margin for error."
A Day at the Races
Moments before the start of the Michael Johnson-Donovan Bailey sprint showdown in Toronto (page 48), a voice called out from the near-capacity crowd watching a simulcast at the Mirage casino in Las Vegas: "C'mon, Donovan, pull a hamstring!"
In the end, of course, it was Johnson who pulled up lame, giving the title of World's Fastest Human to Bailey—and a shock to many of the bettors in Vegas. Johnson had opened as a 2-to-1 favorite five weeks ago, and by post time had climbed to 3 to 1. "We had all kinds of bets," says Robert Walker, manager of the Mirage race and sports book, which took in roughly $500,000 on the sprint. "Everything from $10 to five figures."
The biggest wager, according to Walker, was $50,000. "We had 'wise guys' handicapping the race just as they would a horse race," he says. "A lot of them liked Johnson. But one guy told me that Bailey was a sure thing because he's faster at 100 meters and he'd be able to run just as fast for 50 more meters with $1 million on the line." Sounds as if he'd been talking to someone in the stable.