Who is going to get Hideki Irabu? And how soon will the cliffhanging decision be reached? Those questions monopolize discussion in spring training from Florida to Arizona.

Why is Irabu so important? The consensus both in Japan and among American scouts is that he is better than Hideo Nomo of the Dodgers, who quickly made the jump from Japan to U.S. all-star. Three of the four teams with a realistic chance to sign Irabu -- the Yankees, Orioles and Indians -- are contenders to win the World Series. Without Irabu, none is a favorite. With him, any of them might well become the favorite.

Irabu and his agent want to sign with the New York Yankees.

However, the San Diego Padres, thanks to team president Larry Lucchino, have the rights to Irabu.

As a result, we've got a big beautiful mess full of high-stakes bidding and bluffing. Everybody has a favorite last act of this Irabu Intrigue. Many think by Opening Day the Padres will trade Irabu to the Yankees for three young prospects and $4 million. That's the simplest, most probable plot. But it's too easy. And it ignores baseball's long-standing blood-feud animosities. Would Lucchino enjoy doing a big deal that would help George Steinbrenner win the World Series again? Sure, provided Lucchino could throw a basket of rattlesnakes into the trade, too.

A few people -- very few, indeed -- think Irabu and his agent, Don Nomura, will actually carry out their threat of the day and get on a plane back to Japan today. Nomura says if Irabu isn't in pinstripes by the time that plane leaves, the right-hander will retire from Japanese baseball for this season and sign with the Yankees in 1998.

Have a nice flight, guys. Be sure to write.

Talk about a negotiating bluff that has made everybody around baseball's poker table break into laughter. "Hideki and his agent are free to do and say whatever they want," said Lucchino yesterday, "but we will march ahead at our own pace."

That's how guys who learned their trade from Edward Bennett Williams say, "No deal."

Pitchers, at age 27 and near the height of their careers, don't quit -- and throw away millions -- just because they're in a snit or have a combative agent. Somewhere over Fiji, Irabu may turn to Nomura and say, "When we land, I may pursue alternative representation."

While Irabu-to-the-Yanks and Irabu-into-retirement are hot topics, the best gossip of the week is that the long-shot Orioles could actually end up with Irabu.

"If the Orioles could get the rights to Irabu, they'd end up with the keys to the Yankee kingdom," said one source, almost gleeful at the ramifications. "Steinbrenner is desperate to sign Irabu. And it would kill him to see Peter Angelos land him."

The Orioles are fully aware of this possibility. "We have made a very fair offer to the Padres," said Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone yesterday. "We've met all their requirements. . . . We know they want pitching and more pitching. The ball's in their court.

"If we get a shot at a talent like this guy, we'd absolutely want to sign him ourselves," added Malone, who has a good relationship with Nomura. "We feel we have more to offer Hideki in Baltimore than anybody else can give -- except a uniform with pinstripes. . . .

"But if we couldn't sign him, sure, we'd consider trading him to the Yankees."

Perhaps the true core -- and irony -- of the Irabu tale is the way Lucchino acquired his rights from the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan. And how Steinbrenner failed.

"We didn't do it by phone or fax," said Lucchino yesterday. Actually, Lucchino unleashed a secret weapon -- a Stanford professor named Dan Okimoto.

"Dan was actually born in an internment camp -- in a stable at Santa Anita racetrack," said Lucchino pointedly. "His parents were both Congregationalist ministers. But that's still where they were put."

Okimoto got a degree from Princeton -- where he roomed with future senator Bill Bradley and became lifelong friends with Lucchino -- before getting a masters at Harvard and a PhD at Michigan. At Stanford, he began the Asia Pacific Institute. Lucchino never lost touch.

Last winter, 15 major league teams pursued the rights to Irabu. Lucchino sent Okimoto to Japan on the Padres' behalf. The goal: to work out an elaborate, long-term working agreement with the Marines.

Okimoto -- and Lucchino in a later trip to Japan -- laid out a partnership between the Padres and the Marines for the next century. Exchange of scouting information. Semiannual meetings between player personnel evaluators. Japanese coaches spending time with the Padres' minor league teams. The Marines using San Diego's spring training facilities. The two teams even agreed to send players to each other's minor league teams if it seemed beneficial.

Many, including Steinbrenner and Nomura, assumed that the Marines would naturally prefer a long-term relationship with the mighty and famous Yankees. To their shock, the Marines picked the Padres.

Ever since, the Yanks have screamed foul, blustered about Irabu's inalienable rights and tried to buy the pot. But baseball's Executive Council upheld the Padres-Marines deal last month. San Diego had played by rules established between American and Japanese baseball in '66. The Yanks hadn't. According to sources, Steinbrenner dressed down the whole Executive Council. But then they didn't love him a whole lot for starters. Baseball politics are endless.

Whoever gets Irabu, the moral of this tale will be fairly simple. Assuming Irabu plays in the major leagues this season, the Padres will be the big winners. Somebody will have to pay a king's ransom. And how did Lucchino get Irabu's rights without opening his owner's wallet?

Lucchino won Irabu's rights by being diplomatic and respectful. By showing, through Okimoto, that he had a lifetime of appreciation for Japanese culture. By emphasizing long-term cooperation rather than merely the short-term pursuit of Irabu. By being the antithesis of the greedy American corporate types. Maybe that's what really burns the owner of the baseball Yankees. CAPTION: Hideki Irabu is an ace with the Chiba Lotte Marines, and getting him would be a really big deal.