Great Pitcher? Maybe. Great Marketing? For Sure

The buildup for Yankee flamethrower Irabu is phenomenal

Love George Steinbrenner or loathe him, you've got to say this for the New York Yankees' principal owner: He knows hype. Hideki Irabu's ultimate value to the Yankees will depend on how well the Japanese hurler performs on the field. But Irabu already has generated such extraordinary fan and media interest that Steinbrenner's decision to sign an unproven, out-of-shape foreign import to a $12.8 million contract looks shrewder with every passing day.

"Irabu has come into baseball with a bigger buildup than anyone I can remember," says Steven V. Raab, director of special markets for Starter Sportswear Inc., which is selling Irabu T-shirts as fast as it can make them. That includes Hideo Nomo--the Japanese pitcher who became an international star and merchandising gold mine after joining the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. "The marketing opportunities that we see with Irabu are tremendous," says Derek Schiller, the team's vice-president for business development.

THROWING SMOKE. Nomo had the advantage of novelty, being the first Japanese to pitch in the major leagues since the mid-1960s. And both he and Irabu enjoy the glamour of being strikeout pitchers. But where Nomo, 28, relies on his guile and a wicked curveball, Irabu, also 28, is a flamethrower in the classically American, crowd-pleasing mold of a Roger Clemens. And the fact that Irabu is pitching for the most fabled franchise in professional sports "is the No. 1 reason there's more hype around him," says Faust E. Capobianco IV, director of licensing for Majestic Athletic Wear Ltd.

Another difference: Nomo only began attracting outsize notice after he actually took the mound in Los Angeles. Irabu arrived in New York atop a tsunami of transpacific controversy. His team in Japan had an agreement with the San Diego Padres that gave the Padres U.S. rights to the pitcher. Irabu scandalized Japanese fans by refusing to sign with the Padres and threatening to sit out the 1997 season unless he was allowed to negotiate with the Yankees.

Once Irabu got his way, Steinbrenner rose to the promotional occasion. He lauded Irabu's pursuit of Yankee pinstripes as an act of valor: "This young man said, `I only want to pitch in New York.' He stood up to a whole nation." On May 30, Irabu signed a four-year pact that ranks as the richest contract ever given a player without so much as an inning of professional baseball experience in America.

"The Orient Express," as the New York tabloids dubbed him, got a fat $8.5 million signing bonus payable over three years and an annual salary starting at $200,000 and rising to $2 million in 2001. (Nomo had signed for a $2 million bonus and the major league minimum salary of $109,000.) While the 240-pound Irabu was pitching himself into shape in the minors, highlights of his every start were broadcast not only on local New York stations but also on ESPN and other national cable networks.

FULL COUCHES. In his July 10 major league debut, Irabu lived up to the hype before a near-sellout crowd of 51,901, exceeding the usual draw by perhaps 30,000. The added gate and concession-stand revenue amounted to nearly one-third of the $3 million the Yankees owe Irabu for 1997 (table). The game also attracted a huge television audience in New York City and Japan, where the broadcast was carried by NHK, the Japanese equivalent of the BBC. While sales of Irabu T-shirts and warm-up jackets are concentrated in these same markets, suppliers also report strong orders from Hawaii and mainland U.S. cities with large Japanese-American populations, notably Los Angeles and Seattle.

If Irabu-mania is to endure, the Japanese pitching sensation will have to show that his talent matches his celebrity. "Nomo-mania" steadily grew through 1995 and 1996 on the strength of Nomo's consistently superb pitching. On July 15, Irabu turned in a mediocre second start. Nonetheless, NHK will give Irabu every chance to eclipse Nomo: Its officials have decided that if Irabu and Nomo happen to be pitching simultaneously, the network will show Irabu and the Yankees live and relegate Nomo to tape-delayed broadcast.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.