By now, it is all over the internet, but I wanted to have a post about this tragic news. Former MLB and NPB player, Hideki Irabu was found dead this week. He played for Lotte Orions/Chiba Lotte Marines (1988-1996, the club relocated from Kawasaki to Chiba, and changed the name in 1992), New York Yankees (1997-99) Montreal Expos (2000-01) Texas Rangers (2002) and Hanshin Tigers (2003-04).
[added Aug. 1] “You Gotta Have Wa” author Robert Whiting had an excellent write up of the entire life of the pitcher in Pitching From Behind: The sad road of Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu. Including this episode of how he got to the Yankees:
By the age of 27, he’d twice led the Pacific League in ERA and strikeouts. American Bobby Valentine, who managed Irabu in 1995, compared him to Nolan Ryan. “If he played in the U.S.,” Valentine said, “he would do a lot to remove the fantasy that U.S. baseball is better than the Japanese version.”
Irabu liked the idea of playing in America and began looking for a way around the rule that granted free agency to Japanese players only after 10 years of service. Lotte was willing to cooperate to an extent, but angered by Irabu’s insistence that he would only play for the New York Yankees, they traded him to the San Diego Padres instead, an organization they had ties with. Irabu flatly refused to go. “What we have here is slave trade,” he told reporters.
Had Irabu been a different kind of guy, he might have signed with San Diego at that point. San Diego was a nice, clean town. The weather was good and there were lots of golf courses. But Irabu had a sensitive streak as wide as Tokyo Bay. To his way of thinking, the Padres and Lotte had disrespected him. And he wasn’t about to let that pass.
San Diego eventually gave in, trading Irabu to New York for three Yankee reserves. Major League Baseball, for its part, ruled that future transactions of the San Diego-Lotte type would be prohibited. Instead, MLB instituted the posting system, in which teams must bid for the rights to negotiate with top Japanese players.
Irabu holds Japanese record for fastest pitch recorded. (Time magazine, Hideki Irabu: A One-Time Baseball Sensation Meets a Sad End)
Irabu was a sensation in Japan, where he clocked the fastest pitch ever recorded in the country’s history (98 MPH) in the mid-1990s. Following the trail blazed by Hideo Nomo, the Japanese pitcher who won Rookie of the Year honors for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, Irabu headed to America in 1997. The San Diego Padres acquired his rights, but Irabu refused to sign with the club, insisting that he’d only play for the New York Yankees. The Padres traded him to New York, who signed him to a four-year, $12.8 million contract.
His contract was the the richest contract for a player who has never pitched in the major leagues at the time. (From New York Times’ article, “Hideki Irabu, Briefly a Yankee Sensation, Dies at 42″)
When he made his highly anticipated debut for the Yankees on July 10, 1997, against the Detroit Tigers, Yankee Stadium had a postseason atmosphere. A crowd of 51,901, many wearing cone-shaped Asian-style hats, showed up, as did 300 reporters. Camera flashes popped throughout the stadium on that summer night.
In Japan, 35 million people watched the game on television. Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, said it was the most pressure he had seen on a Yankee in 25 years. That day, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had honored Irabu, who was 28, at City Hall.
The Yankees had signed him for $12.8 million for four years. It was the richest deal in history for a player who had yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues.
But he never lived up to his huge expectation. (From New York Daily News’ “Late ex-New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu always appeared a troubled man, up until his death”)
Irabu failed to live up to the hype, and George Steinbrenner showed him no more mercy than he showed any ordinary Yankee farmhand who spit the bit, to borrow one of The Boss’ favorite expressions.
In fact, Steinbrenner saved one of his more famous rants for Irabu, angrily calling him a “fat, pus-sy toad” after the pitcher failed to cover first base on a ground ball in a spring training game, and then refused to allow Irabu to accompany the team that day on a flight to the West Coast to start the season.
…[Irabu's translator George] Rose eventually had to translate part of this message to his client (“koshinuke debu gamagaergu” is one Japanese translation for “spineless fat toad”), and the gist of it seems to have sunk in. Irabu has not lost a game since May 25th, and threatens to become one of the team’s dominant pitchers.
Irabu was part of the Montreal Expos in 2001, where he was a team mate with two Japanese pitchers, Masato Yoshii and Tomokazu Ohka (traded in the middle of the season). Then, after returning to Japan, he was a key member of the 2003 Hanshin Tigers. Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker wrote about the season in 2009.
Most American fans remember Irabu as a Yankee, but for me he’ll always be a Hanshin Tiger. I was living the Tigers home market (Osaka) when Irabu joined the team for the 2003 season, and it was hands down the most fun baseball season I’ve ever been around as a fan. The recollections that follow are drawn entirely from memory and unverified through research, but in this case the story is more important than the data.
Hanshin is basically the Cubs of Japan, but at the time they were coming off a respectable 2002 season in which they finished 4th but competitive for much of the season. Prior to that they had finished in dead last for a number of consecutive seasons. Manager Senichi Hoshino had brought in a winning attitude, acquired some veterans, and taught the rest of the guys “how to win”. So there was an air of optimism around the team going into the 2003 season.
But there was definitely some skepticism among the team’s fan base over Irabu’s signing. He was seen as an MLB flop who was out of shape and had a questionable attitude. But he was coming off a good showing in the Puerto Rican winter league, so he had his defenders. Irabu went out and had a good spring training, and earned the #2 spot in the Tigers’ rotation, ironically behind future Yankees bust Kei Igawa.
Hunterdon County Democrat beat writer Mike Ashmore interviewed Kei Igawa about the year.
“I was very surprised when I heard about it,” said Igawa through interpreter Subaru Takeshita.
“He was just one of the few guys who came back after playing in the big leagues to play in Japan. I learned a lot from him, he told me about the differences between baseball there and baseball over here. We talked about baseball a lot.”
Irabu then tried to make comeback, but hampered by the injury. (From Yakyu Baka)
Irabu attempted a comeback in 2009 with the Kochi Fighting Dogs but ended up calling it quits in 2010 because of right wrist problems. He also recently made the headlines when he was arrested on suspicions of drunk driving.
Deanna from Marinerds, etc. blog had an amazing photo of Irabu from 1987 Koshien Magazine that she scanned in. (Scroll to all the way down.)
May he rest in peace.