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Irabu leaves as promised

Hideki Irabu took his 100 mph fastball and went home.

The star right-hander, unable to sign with the Yankees as he wished, got on a plane Wednesday in Los Angeles and followed through with his threat to return to Japan.

Even if the Padres don't deal his rights to the Yankees, Irabu could end up pitching in North America this summer, albeit at a lower level.

The Regina (Saskatchewan) Cyclones of the independent Prairie League sent a letter to baseball officials in New York and Tokyo on Wednesday, notifying them they will pursue Irabu for this season and asking whether such a deal would jeopardize his future in the majors.

The Cyclones have a working relationship with Irabu's agent, Don Nomura, and would have a good chance of landing the pitcher, owner Dave Ferguson said.

Nomura's representatives said several independent teams have called.

Nomura also wants to know of any ramifications of Irabu signing with an independent club. He said the Japanese commissioner was quoted in Japanese newspapers as saying that if Irabu goes to an independent league, he will be suspended.

There's a 1966 treaty in force between Japan and the big leagues, and Nomura said it might include a provision that Major League Baseball will accept any such suspension. Nomura doesn't want his client under suspension in case the Padres do eventually trade him to the Yankees.

The Padres acquired Irabu's rights from the Chiba Lotte Marines.

PEPSI IS IT: Major League Baseball's first national sponsorship deal since the 1994 strike makes Pepsi its official soft drink, even though rival Coca-Cola products will be the only sodas fans can buy in most major-league parks. Coca-Cola Co., a longtime sponsor of the sport, has local arrangements making its products available exclusively in 24 of the 28 ballparks; Pepsi is in the remaining four.

Pepsi, which is based in Somers, N.Y., is getting the rights to use baseball's trademarks and the All-Star and post-season logos in its advertising and packaging along with the official drink designation for the next five years.

It also will get the right to promote All-Star balloting by the fans outside ballparks. Coca-Cola's deals with local teams prevent Pepsi from handling the vote inside the parks.

CAMPANIS SURGERY: Former Dodgers GM Al Campanis, 80, who nearly died of pneumonia two weeks ago, had surgery in Los Angeles to have a feeding tube inserted in his stomach.

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