When Sports Lions Are Tabbies


YOU'VE GOTTA love Hideki Irabu. Or you gotta hate him.

The first thing he showed us was that the only difference between himself and the millions of other Yankee fans who wouldn't consider playing for any other team was his agent, George Steinbrenner's desperation and a lot of press coverage.

For a while we thought he might actually have the goods. If he was able enough to make the Padres, surely he could help the Yankees to another pennant.

But apparently the American League batters hadn't read the stories. They hit him, hard, and thus endeth his honeymoon in the Bronx.

Poor Irabu planned on becoming a legitimate star. Never did he figure on turning into a character out of professional wrestling, the foreign phenom turned greedy interloper with a guaranteed contract.

What was it about Irabu that George liked so much? A chance to corner the local Asian baseball fans? (Stranger things have happened.) A person only has to look at the way Tiger Woods has galvanized the golf world to see how a baseball magnate might fancy that a multicultural marketing strategy could work miracles for our national pastime.

Alas, it hasn't worked entirely for Woods, either. But it didn't really have to, since Woods was a millionaire before he even made his professional debut - quitting college and pitching for a shoe company with the first words he spoke as a professional - a wealthy man before he'd even swung a club as a member of the tour.

Maybe it was better for Irabu, not getting off the ground. Woods has the goods, and what's it gotten him? Each major championship he doesn't win becomes an albatross around his neck. Which is the tough thing about being a dynasty or a phenom: If you win, you lose (you were supposed to win, anyway) - and if you lose, you're yesterday's sashimi.

Of course, Irabu does his talking through an interpreter, and unlike Woods, no one expects him to speak for every one of his varied ethnic components. Just as well for Irabu, since apparently not even Woods can win that one. Or any other of the spokesmanly games athletes are expected to play.

Few 23-year-olds can win that one, really. Most would probably end up veering dizzingly between pronouncements about their own greatness, and apologies for their presumption (or for telling off-color jokes to a reporter, as Woods did). These would be followed inevitably by those scripted slogans, or more packaged assertions and planned mea culpas.

It wasn't always like this. Time was that jocks were anything but "role models." Fifty years ago a baseball player wasn't allowed in the better sort of hotel. Golf professionals visiting a country club to play in a tournament weren't permitted to change in the club's locker room, let alone the clubhouse. Back then, nothing was newsworthy about an athlete telling an off-color joke to a reporter - besides, what publication would have printed it?

But if you make enough money in the United States, sooner or later respectability will follow - if you can't earn it, it gets conferred on you. With all the billions invested in the sports machine, the media have got to be sure that family values and uplifting, inspirational tales are always involved.

Now athletes are expected to provide the gossip, melodrama and rap sheets for sports sections of a thousand newspapers. They are supposed to make sure people want to dress like them. Drink the stuff they drink. Uh, smell like them, even.

That's if they win. So, let's hope Irabu goes forth today against Kansas City and wins. But if he doesn't, and he ends up in middle relief, fielding boos as he fights an uphill battle against the paying customers, let's hope he doesn't blame us, or even the Boss, but instead, just tries again. Besides, it'll make for a great story.