A couple of short stories about Asian pitchers and Irabu: I was announcing Yankee games in the mid-90s when I said over the air, “I wonder if we’ll ever see an Oriental position player in the Major Leagues?” Dion James was playing for the Yankees at the time, and told me about an exciting 19-year old named Ichiro Suzuki who had a chance to be the first. We all know that story. Big fan of Bernie Williams from watching Yankee games in Japan. Wears number 51 because of that.
So, I get a letter about a week later from an Asian baseball fan. Not a malicious letter but scolding me gently for referring to Asian players as “Oriental.” He said, “Noodles and rugs are Oriental, not people. We are Asians.” Fortunately for me, he put his phone number in the letter, so I called him.
We had a pleasant conversation and I told him I certainly didn’t intentionally say “Oriental’ as a slur or condescending remark. It was said innocently out of ignorance. He understood. I asked him if he would be watching the next game we televised. He said he would. He was a huge baseball fan and was complimentary of our telecasts on the MSG Network. I asked if he would please watch and listen in the top of the 4th inning. He said he would. I took the opportunity to clear up the Oriental/Asian situation.
So, on to Asian pitchers coming to America with the potential to dominate the Major Leagues. Hideo Nomo, Irabu, Dice-K, Hiroki Kuroda, and Kei Igawa, the biggest disappointment of all for over $40 million. Potentially the best one I saw up close was Chien-Ming Wang from Taiwan. A near Cy Young Award-winner before he injured his foot/ankle running the bases.
Can’t Major League teams take a little time to teach pitchers how to slide and make proper turns running the bases? I learned from the great George Case early in my career and was used as a pinch runner often. Even stole a base at age 41, the oldest to do it until Greg Maddux one-upped me by a month or two.
However, my most serious injuries during 25 Major League seasons were from sliding. Slid too hard into second to break up a double play and into third beating a throw from the outfield. Broken wrist on one and cracked kneecap on another. My technique was good. I just slid too hard. I figure it cost me about 25 to 30 wins. If I didn’t learn from George as a young player, they probably would never had used me to pinch run. Used to pinch run for my teammates Harmon Killebrew and Greg Luzinski.
Okay, enough about me and my ill-fated slides. Wang had a devastating hard sinker. You could count on him to get at least 75 percent of his outs on infield groundouts. Stress-free motion, no hard breaking ball to put stress on his elbow. I thought he was going to be “The One” until the foot/ankle injury.
This brings me to Irabu and how the hype from Japan can be deceiving. I was preparing to announce a Yankee game in Chicago when Jim Fregosi, former All-Star Shortstop with the Angels and longtime scout and manager in the Majors, began telling me about Irabu. He had been scouting him. The phrase that stood out was when he said, “He’s Clemens when Roger was in his prime.” That will get your attention. Hideki had a great splitter, but his fastball didn’t seem to be as fast as the advanced hype.
Now, here is one thing to look for from Darvish and I hope he can deal with it: The hitters here are bigger, stronger, and more intimidating than the hitters in the Asian leagues. I will never forget the defining moment for me when Hideki Irabu’s confidence in his fastball was shattered. He gave up a monstrous home run in Yankee Stadium to Matt Williams when Matt was playing for the Indians. It was off Irabu’s fastball. Our crack TV crew had a shot of Irabu from our center field camera as Hideki was facing center field. The expression on his face was priceless. Mouth open, eyes wide open like he had never experienced anything like that. And he probably hadn’t.
The challenge for all pitchers — and I experienced it myself when Mantle and Colavito and other power hitters turned my best fastball around — is to have the nerves to keep challenging hitters and throw it for strikes. We have seen time and time again that the pitchers who come over here from Asia don’t have the confidence to consistently challenge Major League hitters with their fastball.
All except Wang, and he is on the way back. I hope he makes it. Did you ever watch Dice-K pitch? Painful. He’d rather bite the head off a rattlesnake than throw his fastball for a strike. He was actually a long relief pitcher even when he was winning games, because with today’s pitch count limitations he was over his limit in the 5th inning most of the time.
So, I’lll be keeping a close eye on Yu Darvish and see if he is finally the one to be able to challenge and dominate our bigger, more powerful big league hitters. For his and the Rangers’ sake, I hope he does. It will be good for the game and the Rangers profit and loss statement!