After four months of hype and $12.8 million of faith in his fastball, the Yankees will finally put their Japanese import, Hideki Irabu, on the mound at Yankee Stadium Thursday night against the Detroit Tigers.
But judging from Dodger catcher Mike Piazza’s experience with Hideo Nomo, don’t expect Irabu to adjust instantly to a different culture, a different team and a different league.
“It will take some time,” Piazza was saying before the All-Star Game Tuesday night. “With Hideo, I was fortunate I had a spring training with him. I caught him three or four times before the season started, but there still were problems. It took some time.”
Joe Girardi, the Yankee catcher, had never caught Irabu until their private workout Tuesday at Yankee Stadium.
“Joe is one of the best receivers,” Piazza said. “He takes catching seriously, and he doesn’t have a big ego. That will help him develop a catcher’s relationship with Irabu, but it will still take time.”
Several Yankees have openly resented Irabu’s sudden stature and sudden millions as George Steinbrenner’s pet project. Their objection: The husky right-hander had never even pitched in the minors until last month.
“But your ability translates into your acceptance,” Piazza said. “It was that way with Hideo and it will be that way with Hideki.”
Over his six starts with Yankee farm teams in Tampa, Fla., Norwich, Conn., and Columbus, Ohio, the 27-year-old Irabu had a 3-1 record with a 2.32 earned run average. In 31 innings, he struck out 34, while walking only one. But he will now be facing major league hitters.
Joe Torre said that Irabu doesn’t speak or understand much English, but that he does understand what might be called “pitcher’s English.”
“From what I’m told, Mel Stottlemyre will be able to communicate with him with words and motions that a pitcher will understand,” said Torre, the Yankee manager, referring to his pitching coach. “But other than that, we’ll have to take it day to day.”
During Irabu’s six-week tour of Yankee farms, his shepherd was Arthur Richman, a Yankee front-office executive.
“He’s learned how to say ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you,”’ Richman said, “but he doesn’t speak English too well. He’ll have an interpreter with him all the time, Kota Ishijima, and he’s got his own Japanese trainer, too, a guy known as Ichy, who rubs his arm.”
Nomo, who has an 8-7 record this season after having been the National League rookie of the year in 1995, still doesn’t speak much English, but Piazza has learned how to communicate with him at the mound.
“When I go out there,” the Dodger catcher said, “I’ll tell him, ‘We need a double play’ or ‘Let’s go’ or ‘Concentrate.’ But I think he knows what I’m saying more by my expression than by what I’m actually saying.”
As with any new pitcher, Girardi and Jorge Posada, the Yankees’ backup catcher, must learn Irabu’s style as a pitcher.
“It took time for me to know how Hideo liked to work,” Piazza said. “How he liked to work hitters when he had his good stuff and how he liked to work hitters without his good stuff.”
Another factor for the Yankees will be the invasion of the Japanese news media.
“All the attention that Hideo got from the Japanese media was difficult for him and the team,” Piazza said.
“It was a circus.”
Surely a similar circus will surround Irabu Thursday night, and whenever he pitches.
“Hideo has learned a tremendous amount,” Piazza said. “In Japan, there’s more honor, more traditional respect for ability. I’m sure they try to steal signs over there, but it’s not as prevalent as it is here. Over here, teams look for the smallest tip-off in your pattern of pitching and your tendencies in certain counts and certain situations.”
In his minor league games, Irabu had problems with holding runners on and with the balk move.
“Hideo had to learn how to hold runners on,” Piazza said. “Over here, speed is much more prominent than it is in Japanese baseball.”
And Thursday night, Hideki Irabu will be much more prominent than he ever was in Japanese baseball.
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