One sport worlds apart Foreigners: Baseball is globalizing its talent pool faster than it can assimilate the new players into the clubhouse culture.

March 29, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu made headlines recently when he angrily stomped on the toes of a Japanese cameraman and crushed a videocassette during a post-game interview session.

Talk about getting off on the wrong foot again.

Irabu has been a staple of the New York tabloids since he made the decision to play in America more than a year ago. His first season was a public relations disaster. He pitched poorly and behaved badly, engendering resentment from his teammates and derision from the stands. His latest tirade reinforced the notion that the club made a huge mistake when it gave up several top prospects for the privilege of signing him to a $12 million contract.

In retrospect, however, the problem may have run deeper than Irabu's volatile personality or the extreme pressure of playing in New York. It may have been the predictable result of baseball's sudden rush toward globalization.

"I think that's still in its infancy," said Toronto Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash, whose club has had success bringing Latin players to the major leagues. "It's going to take a lot longer to develop a comfort level for [Asian] players. You don't see that many Asian coaches and Asian scouts, but as the globalization of baseball continues, you will."

Irabu is one of just a few high-profile Asians in the major leagues. The Los Angeles Dodgers have had great success with Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo and South Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park - perhaps because of the organization's long-standing relationship with their home countries - but the rest of the industry may not be as prepared for the arrival of more and more players from the Pacific Rim.

Major League Baseball, after all, is just getting up to speed in Latin America.

The cultural obstacles that have aggravated Irabu's assimilation into American baseball have been a problem for Latin players for generations. The language barrier and the loneliness that comes with it can make life miserable for foreign nationals. The pressure to represent their homelands and prove themselves in a new country is enormous. The frustration that comes with failure is magnified.

Just ask Orioles reliever Armando Benitez, who tearfully packed up his locker twice during the 1995 season and threatened to go home to the Dominican Republic after a string of frustrating outings made it obvious he was not yet ready to pitch in the majors.

His pride was bruised and his confidence shaken, but the thing that may have pushed him to the brink of a major-league meltdown was the extra pressure that foreign players carry with them to the United States.

In his mind, Benitez was failing not only himself, but also his family and his country. It is a weight that most players from Latin nations must bear while they compete for the fame and riches that come from success in pro ball.

Just ask Chicago Cubs star Sammy Sosa, who may be sitting on a fat, $50 million contract now, but still remembers what it was like to arrive in the United States with little grasp of the language and culture he would have to adopt to succeed.

"You're coming from a different country and you have to learn the language, so you pass a lot of hard times," Sosa said. "You come from a poor family where there isn't much food on the table, and you've got the possibility to help take care of your family. My father died when I was 7 years old, and I wanted to help my mother and my brothers. I'm just thankful that God picked me and blessed me with the talent to do that.

"Nobody wants to be in that situation. You just have to keep in mind what you want to be."

The economic pressure on players from the more highly developed Asian countries may not be as great, but intense national pride and immense media scrutiny combine to create the same kind of suffocating pressure. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner acknowledges that he made a mistake by rushing Irabu into the rotation last year - a mistake he says will not be repeated with newly signed Cuban refugee Orlando Hernandez - but the Yankees still are employing a trial-and-error approach with Irabu.

"I think spring training is important," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "Last year, we made a splash in the middle of the year, but the communications problem and the media pressure made it very difficult for him."

The size of his contract didn't help either. Irabu walked into the Yankees clubhouse making more than four times (in average annual compensation) what the club was paying left-hander Andy Pettitte, who won 21 games the year before, and six times the salary of 1996 Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter. That created a sometimes hostile environment that increased the pressure on Irabu to prove himself worthy of his $12 million deal.

Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said the contract status of an incoming foreign player affects his ability to get comfortable with his new teammates.

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