Whiffed Tigers lukewarm in praise of Irabu

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu may have conquered New York, but not all of the reviews of his major-league debut were glowing. Surprisingly, some of the guys he dominated Thursday night weren't all that impressed.

"He's not ready for the major leagues," Detroit Tigers outfielder Brian Hunter said. "You get a team with a little more experience and he won't have the success. I didn't see the power. He has a very mediocre curveball. He needs a year in the minor leagues."

Hunter's comments were a little extreme, considering the success that Irabu had in his 6 2/3 -inning performance, but there was little question that the free-swinging, undisciplined young Tigers lineup was carefully chosen for Irabu's debut.

The Yankees wanted a big strikeout total to pique fan interest. The Tigers were the perfect opponent, since they strike out more than any American League team except the Oakland Athletics. Irabu had nine through five innings, but could not get into double figures before leaving the game in the seventh inning.

"He didn't throw as hard as I'd heard," said Tigers veteran Travis Fryman. "That's what surprised me the most. But his location was better than what I thought it would be with his fastball."

Though the television broadcast reported radar gun readings of up to 97 mph, Fryman said he felt that Irabu's fastball was in the low 90s, but he didn't want to read too much into the first night.

"Tonight is not an indication whether he'll be successful or he won't be successful," Fryman said. "That'll take a few years. I think he'll be a good pitcher, but I wouldn't put him up there with Roger Clemens."

If manager Joe Torre keeps him on a five-day schedule, Irabu will face a tougher test on Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians, then face the Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners. Four of his first five starts will be at home, which also is no accident.

Griffey on Griffey

Seattle outfielder Ken Griffey does not hide from the media fascination with Roger Maris' single-season home run record, but he said at the All-Star Game that hitting 62 home runs in a season is not a personal obsession.

"Everybody is talking about it except me," Griffey said. "People want me to tell them how I'm going to do this or that. It's not right. What I'm about is going out and helping my team win.

"I just want to be me and whatever happens, happens. I don't want to be someone other people want me to be. My job is to help people win, not going out and trying to break records or whatever else people expect."

Griffey arrived at the traditional halfway point with 30 home runs and 84 RBIs in 87 games. He'd finish the season with 56 homers and 156 RBIs if he maintained that pace.

"I don't want people saying that if I don't hit 61 home runs, then I didn't have a good year," Griffey said. "But that's what people think. I'm going to do what the pitchers let me do. If they let me hit, I'll hit. If we need a single to win, I want to hit a single."

Anguish of Albert

Poor Albert Belle. The embattled Chicago White Sox outfielder once tried to embed a baseball in the chest of a spectator, has been known to chase down trick or treaters with his car, has been caught with a corked bat and once directed an obscenity-laced tirade at TV sportscaster Hannah Storm before a World Series game.

But his brother and spokesman Terry Belle says that he is the victim of a double standard, especially in Cleveland.

"It amazes me," he told the Chicago Tribune. "He was in this community for 10 years, he did a lot of positive things, and still they treat him badly. Will they boo Clemens when he comes back to Boston? I've always said it's a double standard. Albert Belle should be in the same class as a Cal Ripken, a Ken Griffey. He was an Eagle Scout, he played in the Junior Olympics, and he's a Christian. He was a Roberto Clemente Award nominee twice, and he's very genuine. Just because he doesn't like the spotlight, doesn't mean he should be put in that category."

Apparently, it was all just a big misunderstanding. Belle should be showing up in one of those Boy Scouts of America public service commercials any day now.

Boone bounced

If you want to feel sorry for someone, how about former Kansas City Royals manager Bob Boone, who was fired on Wednesday and replaced with veteran major-league coach Tony Muser.

Boone was hired to rebuild a bad ballclub, but was fired because the partially rebuilt model was 10 games under .500 at the All-Star break. Royals GM Herk Robinson apparently felt the team should be a contender because he acquired Jay Bell, Jeff King and Chili Davis over the winter.

But in Boone's defense, he was playing with a thin offensive team and no dependable closer, a sure prescription for failure in the AL.

Comedy Central

The National League Central title still is available to any team that wants to play above .500 in the second half, which has become something of an embarrassment to some of the marquee players in the division.

"I don't think pennant race accurately describes what's going on in our division," said Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin. "It's more of a pennant crawl."

The second half opened with just 6 1/2 games separating the five clubs, and even a Chicago Cubs team that set an NL record for the longest season-opening losing streak (14 games) still has to be considered a contender.

"It's like we've all been jockeying for position for three months and we're still jockeying," Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said. "At this rate, we might be jockeying all the way through the end of September. At least it should make for an interesting second half."

Not if it's anything like the first.

Pirates make impression

The Pittsburgh Pirates won seven straight to move into the break in first place and won some believers when they closed out the first half by sweeping a four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

"I don't think you can count them out," said Cardinals shortstop Royce Clayton. "The thing I like about them is they seem to be resilient. There's been about two or three times this year when they started to fade and it looked like the bubble was going to burst on them. But they keep coming back. That's why I fully expect them to stay in the race for a long time. They don't give up."

Said Larkin: "The Pirates are the type of team that doesn't impress you if you look at them on paper. You have to play them to appreciate them. They're much better than the sum of their parts."

Mac attack

A's first baseman Mark McGwire -- like a lot of baseball people -- is fed up with the way certain top amateur prospects are manipulating the system to cash in as free agents. The latest is J. D. Drew, the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft, who is holding out for a $10 million bonus.

"These kids are screwing themselves," McGwire said. "Their agents are totally wrong. There should be a cap of, say, $200,000 for first-round picks. They have no right to ask for these amounts.

"It's sad. They should want to be able to play baseball, not make $10 million without ever stepping on a pro field. The major leagues should be doing something about this."

Of course, Major League Baseball can't do anything about it unless they negotiate a rookie salary cap with the Major League Baseball Players Association, which isn't likely to go along with another plan to restrict salaries. But perhaps the union will recognize that the giant bonuses going to first-year pros (who aren't in the union) come at the expense of major-leaguers (who are).

McGwire, incidentally, got a bonus of $145,000 when he was the 10th player chosen in the 1984 draft.

Tough stretch

The San Francisco Giants are hanging tough at the top of the NL West, but their schedule is heavily weighted toward the road. They will play 44 of their 75 games after the break on the road.

The Giants will be in good shape if they can weather the 12-game road trip that just opened in Los Angeles and will take them to San Diego, Houston and St. Louis. Otherwise, it will be a major opportunity for the resurgent Dodgers, who entered the weekend undefeated in July and only five games out of first place.

The Boss is the boss

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner proved who's The Boss on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium. The media crush that surrounded the major-league debut of Irabu was so thick that he closed the Yankees' clubhouse -- in violation of American League rules.

Still, his unilateral action probably would not have raised eyebrows if he had not done it with American League president Gene Budig standing right beside him and with the approval of interim commissioner Bud Selig.

It wasn't the actual issue that was bothersome. The small clubhouse would have been overrun by the mob of American and Japanese reporters. But it was sad to watch Steinbrenner run roughshod over the people who are supposed to be running this sport.

Say what?

Mariners center fielder Ken Griffey on whether media pressure might affect his chances of breaking Roger Maris' single-season home run record: "I've had eight years of the dumb questions y'all ask. It ain't killed me yet."

Mariners pitcher Randy Johnson on the difference between Griffey and Oakland Athletics slugger Mark McGwire: "McGwire hits homers that put a kink in your neck. Griffey hits them out so fast, you don't have time for your neck to get sore."

Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington on the prospect of expansion to 32 teams: "There really aren't two great cities with good owners and good facilities ready to take a major-league team. And we don't have the pitching ready. If we expanded, we'd have to expand the strike zone."

San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn on which All-Star Game is the best: "The NBA game is exciting, but who plays defense? Who watches the Pro Bowl? Hockey is pretty good, but again, who plays defense? In our All-Star Game, everybody gets into it, not only the offense, but the defense and the pitchers are out there trying to make pitches. It's the most intense. Getting the adrenalin going is not a problem."

Pub Date: 7/13/97

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