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For N.Y., time to start spreadin' the blues?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So much for Hideki Irabu riding into Gotham and turning the rest of the American League into so much sushi. In only four starts, baseball's equivalent of a New York minute, the Japanese import has discovered how exhilarating and how depressing the Yankees experience can be. And at the same time, the Yankees can't be happy about what they're seeing from their $12.8 million, four-year investment.

The reasons go beyond Irabu's 2-2 record and 7.97 ERA. In his two appearances before yesterday's 9-7 loss to the Seattle Mariners, Irabu shocked club officials with a spitting incident in Milwaukee last Sunday and upset some teammates by blowing past their handshakes. Afterward, he reportedly returned to the clubhouse, where he shredded his uniform belt. Forget cultural adjustments.

The Yankees must be wondering if they bought more hype and headache than No. 4 starter. And the questions grew yesterday, after he was rocked by the Mariners, allowing two home runs and six runs (one unearned) before getting yanked after two innings.

Yankees manager Joe Torre summoned Irabu for a closed-door, 10-minute meeting Thursday regarding the Milwaukee outburst. Torre said that it is unacceptable behavior to cock one's head back and spit in the direction of paying customers.

"I don't know what that means. I don't know what that symbolizes," Torre later told reporters, as if any interpretation was needed. Irabu's spin doctor/interpreter, Kota Ishijima, later told American reporters, "He wasn't spitting at the fans. He was in awe that people took it that way."

The Yankees are still waiting to be awed by Irabu's power. After all the frenzy over his alleged 99-mph fastball, Irabu has yet to climb past 94 mph. More often, he throws around 89 mph. Equally troubling is his fastball has been straight.

Much like Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and countryman Hideo Nomo, Irabu's out pitch is a forkball, which he rarely throws for strikes. If hitters don't jump at it, Irabu has a tough time resembling a .500 pitcher, which is exactly what he was in Japan.

Cleveland Indians left fielder David Justice has already declared Irabu "average," and that came after Irabu's second win. After his team beat Irabu, 6-2, Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner allowed that Irabu could be nothing more than the product of New York hype.

"Is that all bad? Do we suffer just because a lot of people come out just to see if it's curiosity or if it's baseball? No, we don't suffer. We get people out here," Garner said. "If we get another 20,000 people out here because it's hype, and they see [third baseman] Jeff Cirillo and fall in love with him, then maybe they come back. I don't think that's all necessarily bad."

Just a hunch, but George Steinbrenner might disagree.

Keeping up with Jones

Rookie outfielder Andruw Jones, 20, is increasing the likelihood the Atlanta Braves will walk away from pending free-agent center fielder Kenny Lofton after this season. Manager Bobby Cox says he hasn't seen a more gifted rookie since Hall of Famer Al Kaline debuted as an 18-year-old with the Detroit Tigers in 1953. (The Baltimore-born Kaline batted .250 in 30 games that season followed by a .276 average with four homers and 43 RBIs in 1954.)

"Kaline was a star right away, just like this kid," Cox said. "There are a lot of similarities, except this kid has a lot more power."

Jones entered Friday's play with 10 home runs in 247 at-bats, only three fewer than first baseman Fred McGriff had in 114 more at-bats. Jones' 36 walks are also fourth highest on the team.

The issue takes on additional bite when Lofton soon returns from the disabled list (groin). Jones has earned the right to play every day. But to do so, Cox may have to give left fielder Ryan Klesko time at first base in place of McGriff, who has hamstring problems of his own.

There is also no question about who wins a popularity contest within the clubhouse. Lofton, a former locker mate to Albert Belle in Cleveland, has cemented his reputation as a moody loner. Jones has impressed Cox and his coaching staff with his aptitude. Greg Maddux already rates Jones a superior outfielder to Lofton and ex-Brave Marquis Grissom.

"Grissom is about as good as they come and so is Lofton, but I still haven't seen anybody better [than Jones]," Maddux said. "This team doesn't mess around when they put somebody in center."

Freon Deion

This hasn't been the Year of Deion Sanders. He suffered a fractured bone in his face in the NFL playoffs against Carolina, has been sued for divorce, endured injury and is being booed by Reds fans. The crush became enough for Sanders to ask out of Monday's lineup in New York last week.

Sanders, who once urged Atlanta fans to "be true to your boo," apparently got an earful from the nasties who inhabit Shea Stadium. Sanders ripped the town for its "negativity" and "evil" nature.

"This is the house of pain," he told the New York Daily News. "They're all so frustrated with their own lives. That's Satan, man. He lives here."

Sanders' average was in free fall after the Mets series. After hitting as high as .319 a month ago, he had fallen to .286. In a three-game stretch last weekend he botched two fly balls and went 1-for-10.

"When a man has his life in order the way he's comfortable with, he can do all the other things he has to to feel capable," then-manager Ray Knight said. "When they're not, they're distracting. This game, just like golf, is not a game you can be distracted in."

The big tease

The Anaheim Angels are again toying with the hopes of their faithful. A recent 12-1 run pulled them within a half-game of the Mariners, but they now face a brutal road swing and a dicey four-man rotation.

The Angels threw away a game Wednesday when Luis Alicea's ninth-inning toss to pitcher Shigatoshi Hasegawa went wild, allowing the Yankees' winning run to score. The two losses to the Yankees dropped the Angels four games behind the pinstripes for a potential wild-card berth.

"We've got to get these games when we can," outfielder Tim Salmon said. "You see what lies ahead, and you just can't let games like this get away."

No longer are the Angels seen as plucky overachievers. They have raised expectations high enough that a deal before this week's waiver deadline could prove critical. There is growing talk of a push for Philadelphia Phillies ace Curt Schilling, but that is believed to be puff.

Chicago Cubs left-hander Terry Mulholland is thought a more probable candidate. It's more likely that any success Mark Langston experiences after returning next month from elbow surgery will prove most crucial.

Maybe Alomar was right

After Ken Griffey unloaded on Mariners management after an unpopular Monday exhibition in Zebulon, N.C., the club might reconsider its scheduling a cross-country flight to play a group of Double-A All-Stars. Though Griffey's comments about having to play in the exhibition drew the most publicity, his pointed jabs at general manager Woody Woodward were the most damning.

"It feels like we're fighting the other team and our own organization," Griffey said.

Griffey blistered Woodward for not moving quickly to pick up pitcher Randy Johnson's option for 1998.

"This team never makes a player feel good. Why can't they pick up Randy by picking up his option for 1998 now make him feel XTC appreciated. Why does this team always wait till the last minute? They did the same thing with me, they did it with Jay [Buhner], they did it when they signed Randy."

Griffey continued: "Woody's saying we don't have enough money to get this guy or get that guy, but there are players in this clubhouse who want to defer money to free up something now. They won't do it."

This is not what the Mariners, or Griffey, needed. They continue to struggle for a playoff berth, and Griffey's squeaky-clean, swooshified reputation took its first significant hit. Woodward offered no rebuttal. Hmmm.

Lake Erie rumblings

The Cleveland Indians have made much noise about obtaining Schilling from the Phillies, but they may actually attempt to pull off an old magic trick instead.

General manager John Hart had face-to-face discussions with Texas Rangers GM Doug Melvin this week about the possibility of obtaining starter Ken Hill. Hill is considered an injury risk -- he has had shoulder problems this year -- but the Indians enjoyed success with him after obtaining him for the 1995 stretch run. Hill apparently believes off-kilter mechanics are contributing to his physical problems.

In Hill's previous stint in Cleveland, Indians pitching coach Mark Wiley corrected a mechanical flaw. Meanwhile, the Indians' rotation is in tatters. Jack McDowell (elbow), Brian Anderson (shoulder) and Chad Ogea (elbow) are on the disabled list. Orel Hershiser has been forced from his past two starts by a sore right groin.

Facts and figures

With a 14-3 record in 21 starts, Braves ace Greg Maddux is off to the second-best start of his career. In 1988, when he was 18-8 with the Chicago Cubs, he was 15-4 after 21 starts. In 1992, when he finished 20-11, Maddux was 12-8 in 21 starts. In '93, when he was 20-10 in his first year with the Braves, he was only 9-8.

On June 20, Phillies left fielder Gregg Jefferies was hitting a season-high .268. Since, he is hitting .176 (18-for-102) with three home runs and 12 RBIs in 29 games and his overall average has dropped to .241. Jefferies has a four-year, $20 million contract that includes a no-trade clause. The Phillies want to move him. Good luck.

Until rookie Jamey Wright threw a six-hitter at the Cubs on Thursday night, the Colorado Rockies were 3-16 in July. The last Colorado starter to win a game had been Kevin Ritz, who beat the San Francisco Giants, 9-2, on June 28. Ritz has since gone down with season-ending shoulder surgery.

Oakland Athletics outfielder/DH Jose Canseco will receive a $500,000 bonus when he reaches 600 plate appearances. Even worse to a potential trade seeker, the appearance figure automatically rolls over into a guaranteed $5 million contract for next year.

Pub Date: 7/27/97

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