SAN FRANCISCO — 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 baseball.
"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 of games.
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.
The Padres have visions of 2 billion baseball fans on the other side of the Pacific. "There is a passion in Asia for baseball that will only increase," says Mr. Lucchino.
Several other American teams, including the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, are also actively looking for ties with Japanese teams. The Seattle Mariners, owned by the Japanese Nintendo Corp., see Asia as both as a market and as a source of talent, says Jim Colburn, who heads the "Pacific Rim" department of the Mariners. The team has three Japanese players in its spring training camp.
Zen and baseball
The Mariners are even sending their coaches to Japan to study training methods there. "They're fundamentally more sound than we are," says Colburn.
But the mechanics of how different leagues will be able to interact are still murky. If Irabu is successful in challenging the Padres-Marines deal, it will threaten a 1967 treaty between the two leagues, says Dr. Okimoto. Under the agreement, the two sides pledged to honor each other's rules, including agreeing not to raid each other's players.
But that deal has come under increasing strain in recent years. With the advent of free agency in America, Japanese clubs offered lucrative contracts to lure American stars to Japan. Japanese players gained the right to free agency only in 1994, and they can only shop themselves around after playing for 10 years, as compared with six in the United States.
Irabu has played in the Japanese league for only eight years, but like Nomo, he demanded to be released to go play in the US. Allowing Irabu the right to be a free agent would open the doors for anyone to come to the US, and this potential exodus of talent worries Japanese teams.
"Attitudes are hardening now among Japanese baseball owners," says Robert Whiting, a noted author on Japanese baseball. "They feel they're being taken advantage of."
If Irabu becomes a free agent, Japanese owners might retaliate by raiding American players who are still under contract to American teams.
There have been some talks on revising the 1967 agreement, says Lucchino. But US executives are cautious about advocating changes in Japanese free agency rules. "I don't think we have a right to force another pro league to adhere to our policies," says Tim Mead deputy general manager of the Anaheim Angels, which acquired the rights to pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa.
Irabu's agent is a passionate advocate of the internationalization of baseball. Nomura says the trend could help open up Japanese society and give Japanese players rights to play where they want. "The Japanese are basically protectionist," he says, "If there are the same rules as in the US, then there won't be any controversy."