A WORLD OF WEIGHT
There's pressure, and then there's what awaits 28-year-old
Hideki Irabu. Last Thursday the righthanded Irabu, erstwhile ace
of the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan's Pacific League, signed a
four-year, $12.8 million contract to pitch for the New York
Yankees. The deal is the most lavish ever for a player without
experience in the majors or the minors. To justify it--and to
save face--Irabu must almost at once become not only a starter
but also a star.
Last Friday the Yankees paraded "Irabu-san" before more than 100
sushi-sated members of the U.S. and Japanese media. Though he
has never seen Irabu pitch in person or on tape, and though
Irabu's career record in Japan was a modest 59-59, Yankees owner
George Steinbrenner has made it clear that after some tuning up
in the minors, Irabu will be inserted into New York's starting
rotation. The New York Post wasted no time raising the level of
hype. The headline on its front page two days after Irabu's
signing: THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES.
By paying Irabu so much and designating him a starter, Big Stein
has guaranteed his prize acquisition a chilly reception in the
Yankee clubhouse. Andy Pettitte, the Cy Young Award runner-up in
1996, earns $600,000. "It's a shame," Pettitte told The New York
Times. "You'd think that they would take care of me before a
Japanese pitcher." Added Kenny Rogers, whose spot in the
rotation is in jeopardy, "Do we need Irabu?"
Nor is the 6'4", 255-pound Irabu likely to be treated gently by
the Japanese press. In his native land he has been painted as a
prima donna ever since demanding that the San Diego Padres, who
had held his major league rights, swap him to the Yankees, a
team with great marketing power in Japan. A headline in a Tokyo
paper asked Irabu, ARE YOU BLINDED BY MONEY?
Already, Yankees fans are assuming that Irabu's projected
call-up around the All-Star break will serve as the turning
point for the World Series champions, who through Sunday were
30-25, eight games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the American
League East. With a fastball that hovers near 100 mph and a
biting forkball, Irabu may well be more gifted than countryman
Hideo Nomo, an All-Star with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "Once he
pitches they will understand what all the fuss was for," says
Marines pitcher Satoru Komiyama. "If he throws seriously he will
be Number 1 in the world." New York Mets skipper Bobby
Valentine, who managed Irabu in Chiba Lotte two years ago,
likens Irabu's stuff to Roger Clemens's and believes Irabu can
live up to that billing. But, Valentine cautions, "he won't have
a lot of margin for error."
A DAY AT THE RACES
Moments before the start of the Michael Johnson-Donovan Bailey
sprint showdown in Toronto (page 48), a voice called out from
the near-capacity crowd watching a simulcast at the Mirage
casino in Las Vegas: "C'mon, Donovan, pull a hamstring!"
In the end, of course, it was Johnson who pulled up lame, giving
the title of World's Fastest Human to Bailey--and a shock to
many of the bettors in Vegas. Johnson had opened as a 2-to-1
favorite five weeks ago, and by post time had climbed to 3 to 1.
"We had all kinds of bets," says Robert Walker, manager of the
Mirage race and sports book, which took in roughly $500,000 on
the sprint. "Everything from $10 to five figures."
The biggest wager, according to Walker, was $50,000. "We had
'wise guys' handicapping the race just as they would a horse
race," he says. "A lot of them liked Johnson. But one guy told
me that Bailey was a sure thing because he's faster at 100
meters and he'd be able to run just as fast for 50 more meters
with $1 million on the line." Sounds as if he'd been talking to
someone in the stable.
SHUFFLING OFF FROM BUFFALO?
Ralph Wilson, the 78-year-old owner of the Buffalo Bills, has
long been the go-to guy for expressions of outrage at franchise
moves in the NFL. He's been critical of commissioner Paul
Tagliabue for not stopping the moves and of carpetbagging owners
eager to pull up stakes at the first hint of financial ills.
"This whole thing has turned into a broad comedy," Wilson said
last year. "I wake up every morning wondering who's going to
throw the next pie."
It might be Wilson himself. After weeks of strained negotiations
among Wilson, Erie County and the state of New York, it's
possible the Bills could be Cleveland's or Los Angeles's team
after their stadium lease expires at the end of next season.
Having sustained a precipitous drop in season-ticket sales at
80,024-seat Rich Stadium, Wilson wants a five-to-10-year
agreement with revenue guarantees to protect him against the
effects of the area's sinking economy. Erie County, which owns
the stadium, wants to lock in the Bills through 2013 with no
revenue guarantees. With season-ticket sales down from a
team-record 57,132 in 1992 to a projected 34,000 this year,
local officials don't like the prospect of subsidizing a team
with a dwindling fan base.
Franchise relocation is alienating NFL fans across the country,
and the league, which hopes to negotiate its most lucrative TV
contract ever this fall, must do something to stop them.
Tagliabue and the owners need to channel revenue so that wealthy
teams like the Dallas Cowboys don't continue to make $40 million
more in off-field stadium revenue than teams like Buffalo and
the Indianapolis Colts. Unless the league finds a way to aid
teams in need, the broad comedy will only get blacker. If Ralph
Wilson can contemplate a move, anyone can.
The rule adopted recently by a baseball league for players ages
9-12 in Willington, Conn., that a pitcher hitting three batters
in a game be immediately replaced has sparked debate in
youth-league circles. We sought the opinion of a higher
authority: San Francisco Giants righthander Mark Gardner, who
once hit three batters in a single inning.
While pitching for the Montreal Expos against the St. Louis
Cardinals on Aug. 15, 1992, Gardner plunked a trio in the top of
the first, the last two with the bases loaded. "I just grazed
all three of them," Gardner says. "As for the little-league
rule, kids that age don't throw that hard, so the batter has
time to get out of the way. But still, it's probably a good idea
to get a pitcher out of there if he hits three guys, because it
means he's not throwing strikes." Good thing Expos manager
Felipe Alou didn't apply the same logic five years ago. After
his wild fling Gardner retired 19 batters in a row.
History may show that the epitaph of the Indianapolis 500 was
composed on the last lap of the 81st running, by the winner,
Arie Luyendyk: "What the f--- are they doing?"
Luyendyk said it all, as the rain-delayed race finally was
completed on May 27. He was referring to confusion on the track,
created by a mistake on the part of race officials, but the
foul-up was so symptomatic of Indy's decline (SI, June 2) that
the champion could just as well have been describing the 500 and
With Indy in trouble--this year's pole-qualifying crowd was the
smallest in 51 years, and the rain delay helped to hold the race
crowd to 100,000, some 200,000 below normal--Speedway officials
were eager to stage an exciting show. Desperate to have the race
finish with the cars going all out, chief steward Keith Ward
ordered a caution period aborted and the green flag displayed to
open the final lap. This came as a surprise to Luyendyk and
Scott Goodyear, who until the caution had been dueling for the
lead and expected that the race would end under a yellow flag.
To make matters worse, caution lights were left blinking in
Turns 1 and 2. The competitors, confused and in the wrong gears,
accelerated upon seeing the green, and Luyendyk beat Goodyear to
Asked by UPI if he was amazed by "some of the inept judgment
calls that are made here," Luyendyk replied, "You used the
perfect words, and it does amaze me."
As motor sports marketing executive William Dyer told The
Indianapolis Star: "It's going to be real hard to rebuild the
stature of Indy. The product is flawed."
SIZE NO OBJECT
Dean Brudwick, for 23 years the boys' golf coach at Mankato
(Minn.) West High, knew he'd found someone special two years ago
when Brian Haack came out for the team. "The first time people
see Brian, they look at him sort of funny, like, What's he doing
here?" says Brudwick of his No. 4 golfer. "Then he steps up and
drives one right down the middle. No one can believe it."
At 4'5", Haack is a dwarf. He is also one of Minnesota's better
high school golfers, a smooth-putting mainstay of Mankato's
defending state champion squad, which is ranked fourth in
Minnesota heading into this week's state tournament. Haack, a
senior, has never let his stature curtail his athletic
ambitions, whether in golf, baseball, tennis or even basketball.
"I was the 2 guard," says Haack, who played for Mankato as a
freshman. "I just didn't shoot the ball too much. Too easy to
On the links Haack's only concessions to his size are his
inch-shorter-than-standard driver and putter. Though he hits the
ball only 220 yards off the tee, he recently fired a career-best
even-par 71 and regularly shoots between 74 and 85. "Brian works
the greens very, very well," says Brudwick. "It's a real
And what of those spectators who can't help but stare? "They
watch me off the 1st tee, and then they go about their
business," says Haack. "They see I'm just another golfer."
FOLLOW THE MONEY
When Larry Brown signed a contract worth a reported $5 million a
season last month to guide the Philadelphia 76ers, he publicly
thanked Rick Pitino, who was soon to sign a 10-year, $50 million
deal with the Boston Celtics, for raising the bar on head
coaching salaries. Now NBA assistant coaches should also express
their gratitude to Pitino. Team sources say that the Celtics
will pay Pitino's righthand man, Jim O'Brien, about $450,000 a
season, making him the league's highest-paid assistant. Darrell
Walker, the Toronto Raptors' head coach, made $275,000 this
season, though Raptors executive vice president Isiah Thomas has
promised him a raise.
O'Brien, whose father-in-law is Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay,
held head jobs at Wheeling Jesuit College and Dayton for eight
seasons during the 1980s but has just two years of NBA
experience, as an assistant to Pitino with the New York Knicks
in 1987-88 and 1988-89. Yet some of the NBA's veteran assistants
are applauding the deal Pitino gave O'Brien. "It's nice to have
someone scream out that assistant coaches are valuable," says
the Detroit Pistons' Johnny Bach, who 17 years ago made $33,000
as the lone assistant on the Golden State Warriors.
The fallout from O'Brien's windfall was almost immediate.
According to sources, Dick Harter is set to sign on as Larry
Bird's top assistant with the Indiana Pacers for $350,000, or
$100,000 more than the average for a top NBA assistant in
1996-97. O'Brien, whose salary as an assistant to Pitino at
Kentucky last season was less than $100,000, apparently owes his
mammoth raise to Pitino's determination to show that Boston
means business. "The Celtics have tremendous confidence in Rick
Pitino," O'Brien says. "I'm just latched on to him."
Cost, in cents, of a cup of coffee at Bola, a Coimbra, Portugal,
cafe whose owner, thrilled by Sporting Lisbon's 1982 league
soccer title, vowed not to raise java prices until the team won
Average annual revenue losses, in dollars, suffered by Bola as a
result of Sporting Lisbon's 15-year title drought.
Years since jockey Julie Krone, 33, dropped out of Eau Claire
(Mich.) High, where she returned last week to get her diploma
after taking correspondence courses.
Salary, in dollars, of outfielder Kevin Young, the highest-paid
player to take the field for the National League Central-leading
Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday.
Players on the world champion New York Yankees' roster who earn
more than Young.
People (contestants and spectators) injured in Gloucestershire,
England, at a cheese rolling, an event based on a 900-year-old
pagan tradition in which contestants roll down a hill chasing a
giant round cheese.
CENTERS OF THE WORLD
Think the quest to find an NBA center isn't a tall order? Teams
have traversed the globe to pick up pivots, and yet another
foreign-born big man, Virgin Islands native Tim Duncan of Wake
Forest, will be joining the league as the likely No. 1 choice in
the June draft.
LUC LONGLEY, Bulls
Affable beachcomber suffered in-season body-surfing injury
BILL WENNINGTON, Bulls
Earned titles with Chicago in NBA and with Knorr Bologna in Italy
ZAN TABAK, Raptors
Won championship ring averaging 4.9 minutes as Rocket sub
GEORGE ZIDEK, Nuggets
Father, Jiri, considered greatest Czech hoopster
OLDEN POLYNICE, Kings
Traded by Bulls for Scottie Pippen
PATRICK EWING, Knicks
Named All-Star 11 times
RONY SEIKALY, Magic
Averaged 17.3 points and 9.5 boards as Shaq's successor
ARVYDAS SABONIS, Trail Blazers
Runner-up for the NBA's Sixth Man Award in 1995-96
ZYDRUNAS ILGAUSKAS, Cavs
Cleveland reminds him of home
HORACIO LLAMAS, Suns
Phoenix reminds him of home
RIK SMITS, Pacers
Dunking Dutchman has a career scoring average of 14.9
YINKA DARE, Nets
Went NBA-record 769 minutes without an assist
HAKEEM OLAJUWON, Rockets
1993-94 MVP; 12-time All-Star
GHEORGHE MURESAN, Bullets
Tallest player in NBA history
VITALY POTAPENKO, Cavs
Promising rookie averaged 5.8 points in 80 games in 1996-97
VLADE DIVAC, Hornets
Marriage shown on TV back home
STOJKO VRANKOVIC, Timberwolves
Led Panathinaikos to '96 European title
DIKEMBE MUTOMBO, Hawks
Shot swatter was 1996-97 Defensive Player of the Year
Toni Braxton's most recent album may be Secrets, but the
songstress's romantic brushes--alleged and otherwise--with
professional athletes have generated more than a few whispers.
The men in question:
Rumors linked Toni to then Dallas Mavericks Jason Kidd (left)
and Jimmy Jackson last year.
Orlando's David Vaughn was Braxton's Magic man earlier this year.
A 1996 dalliance with Dennis never went beyond two chatty
nights, according to Rodman's book.
New England Patriots running back Curtis Martin has become
Major league baseball clubs provide simple fare for their
players--and plenty of it. Here's what an average team consumes
in the course of a game:
300 pieces of gum (100 sugarless)
18 bags of sunflower seeds
24 bags of pumpkin seeds
7 gallons of water
Several canisters of tobacco usually supplied by players
Thinking about opening your own Dugout Cafe? For an authentic
feel, flood the floor with a soup of tobacco spit, seed shells
and gum wrappers.
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
Former heavyweight champion Riddick (Big Daddy) Bowe, 29, has
applied for a $10.49-an-hour job as a school guard in Upper
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, on his less-than-sculpted 6'4",
234-pound physique: "This isn't a body. It's a cruel family joke."