Three years ago American baseball was shaken by a Japanese
pitching sensation. Hideo Nomo drew massive crowds as he mowed down
batters for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His success sent scouts
scurrying to Japan in search of the next Nomo.
When Major League Baseball opens its season next month, up to
five Japanese pitchers could be on US major-league teams. The
biggest catch, Hideki Irabu, belongs to the San Diego Padres. But
there's a hitch: The 6-foot-5 fireballer, considered Nomo's equal
if not his better, doesn't want to go to San Diego. He prefers the
New York Yankees.
The unprecedented - and controversial - international deal for
Irabu is emblematic of the kinks that may lie ahead as this
"American" pastime increasingly goes global. Yet it is an evolution
that many see as key to the long-term health of the game.
San Diego acquired the rights to Irabu from the Chiba Lotte
Marines in exchange for two Padres minor leaguers.
But because Irabu insists on playing for the Yankees, the deal
has been condemned by some as a violation of players' rights on
both sides of the Pacific.
"You can't trade a body from one country to another like they
did with Irabu," says his agent, Don Nomura. "That is slavery."
Irabu, backed by the Major League Players Association,
challenged the deal. But an executive council convened by the
baseball owners rejected Irabu's appeal, ruling on Feb. 27 that the
Padres legally own the right to sign him. In response, Mr. Nomura,
who is also Nomo's agent, now vows that Irabu will never play for
the Padres - adding fire to rumors that the San Diego club will
trade him to another US team.
"The broad issue of internationalization of baseball is at stake
here," says Daniel Okimoto, a Stanford professor who has served as
a consultant to the Padres. He was a key behind-the-scenes figure
in negotiating the unique sister-team agreement between the Padres
and the Chiba Lotte Marines. That deal also includes the exchange
of coaches, training methods, even tips on nutrition.
The Padres owners are among a small group of baseball executives
who are pushing the development of a global market for major league
"We like to think of ourselves as a baseball team with a foreign
policy," says Padres chief executive Larry Lucchino.
It isn't just about finding good foreign players for American
teams. The idea also is to develop foreign audiences for American
teams. That has happened in Japan where Nomo's success has created
a demand for everything from Dodgers merchandise to the broadcast
Last year, the Padres moved to expand their market to the south,
holding a regular season series of games across the border in
Mexico for the first time. The team is also active in opening ties
with fledgling professional leagues in Taiwan, Korea, Venezuela,
and Australia. …