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Japanese say Irabu deserved demotion to minors

July 29, 1997

TOKYO (AP) _ It wasn’t only poor play that sent New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu back to the minors, Japanese fans say. It was another sin just as grave _ bad manners.

Fans here were disappointed with the Japanese pitcher’s dismal performance in his last three starts, but even more appalled by his manners last week in Milwaukee, when he spit in disgust after being pulled from the mound.

``In Japan, baseball players are taught to respect the ground as if a god lived there,″ said Koji Naka, a towel shop manager. ``What he did was no good.″

Irabu’s demotion on Monday was a dramatic fall from his sparkling debut with New York less than three weeks ago, when he struck out nine Detroit Tigers and won over Yankees fans with his impressive fastball.

The debut was a boost to Irabu in his home country, where fans considered him the bad boy of the baseball diamond for his disputes with his former team. He suddenly was hailed as a national hero.

That was before a string of shaky starts, ending with Saturday’s game against the Seattle Mariners, when Irabu gave up six runs and four hits in only two innings of a 9-7 loss.

The assignment to the minors was no surprise in Japan.

``He did well in his debut game, but he was terrible in the next three games,″ baseball commentator Hiroyuki Yamazaki said. ``His movements were not sharp, his arm looked dull.″

But Irabu’s uneven performance was just the half of it in Japan, where baseball is a beloved national pastime and fans and players alike approach the game with an almost religious reverence.

Irabu violated that code in a nationally televised game on July 20 in Milwaukee, when he suffered his first loss and showed his famous temper. He kicked a resin bag, stomped around in anger and appeared to spit toward jeering Milwaukee fans.

He later explained he was spitting toward the Brewers’ dugout instead, but that made little difference at home, where form can be just as important _ if not more _ than performance.

``There’s nobody in the world of baseball who would feel sorry for him,″ Yamazaki said. ``He should realize that he is getting paid for being on the field. Spitting on the baseball field is simply unthinkable.″

It wasn’t the first time Irabu’s been accused of failing to understand the true spirit of Japanese baseball.

Irabu’s troubles with his Japanese team, the Lotte Marines, started over the team’s exclusive agreement with the San Diego Padres. Irabu, his heart set on playing for the Yankees, refused to negotiate with the Padres for three months.

The Yankees finally obtained Irabu from San Diego on April 22, signing him to a four-year, $12.8 million contract.

But the bad press in Japan didn’t stop. TV reports showed him smiling fawningly before American reporters, only to turn around and give brush-offs to Japanese cameras.

Despite the somewhat soured expectations, Japanese who criticized Irabu also were unwilling to write him off just yet. There’s still hope, they said, for him to turn it around.

``He wasn’t ready for the majors,″ said Hidenori Baba, a forklift operator at a Tokyo fish market. ``Playing in the minors will give him time to relax. I think he’ll make it again.″

He got a vote of confidence from fellow Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo, who is building an impressive career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

``He is potentially a very capable pitcher,″ Nomo said, quoted by Kyodo News agency. ``I think it would eventually benefit him more to go back to the minor leagues for some more adjustment.″

There also was some recognition that Irabu faced special pressure trying to repeat his countryman’s success.

``It’s not easy to be the second Nomo,″ Yamazaki said.

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