NEW YORK (AP) _ New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner argued Wednesday that Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu should be a free agent able to negotiate with any major league team.

Steinbrenner, accompanied by lawyer David Boies, appeared before a four-man committee that will determine major league policy toward Japanese players.

The San Diego Padres announced last week that they had obtained exclusive negotiating rights to Irabu from the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan's Pacific League.

New York was interested in signing Irabu, and argued that a major league team can't obtain exclusive rights from the Japanese club.

AL president Gene Budig, NL president Len Coleman, Player Relations Committee head Randy Levine and Bill Murray of the commissioner's office are charged with recommending a policy to the ruling executive council.

Irabu had the best ERA in the Japanese leagues in each of the last two seasons. The 27-year-old right-hander was 12-6 with a 2.40 ERA in 1996, and had a career record of 59-59 with a 3.41 ERA.