‘Remembering Hideki Irabu’ by Robert Whiting

Hideki Irabu

I did have a article round-up of Hideki Irabu’s tragic news back in July, but one of my favorite author and SABR Tokyo Chapter member, Robert Whiting, has written great three-part series in The Japan Times. Series is called Remembering Hideki Irabu. A great read. Story of a complicated man.

Part 1: Irabu’s impact on MLB-NPB relations profound
…[Irau] had an historic impact on U.S.-Japan baseball relations, particularly in the area of player rights (which, before him, had barely existed in the Japanese game). For this alone, he is worth remembering.

The road that Hideki Irabu took from Japan to the United States was an especially tortuous one, beset with obstacles erected by high-handed baseball executives who treated players as chattel. A player of lesser willpower might not have stayed the course.

As Jean Afterman, his one-time attorney, put it: “He went through the (expletive) jaws of hell to get where he wanted to go, but not once did he ever think of giving up. Because of him an entire generation of players in Japan has benefited.”

Part 2: Attitude, lifestyle contributed to Irabu’s demise
Hideki Irabu was given a king’s welcome in New York.

He was flown to the city in Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s private jet and given the key to the city by NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Irabu’s debut in America, July 10, 1997, was a memorable event in a Yankees history filled with memorable events.

Before a weeknight audience of more than 50,000 fans, nearly one-third of whom were Japanese, and a morning television audience back in Japan of over 30 million, Irabu took the mound. Mixing a fastball in the high 150s kph, with a sharply diving forkball in the low 150s kph, he struck out nine in a 10-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers.

When he was removed from the game with two outs in the seventh inning, he was given a deafening ovation, one which lasted so loud and so long, that Irabu was pushed back onto the field by Yankees teammates for a curtain call.

It was perhaps the high point of Irabu’s career.

Part 3: Irabu spent final days lost, without purpose
Irabu was a complex man. He could be fun to be with. He liked karaoke. He could laugh at his own short temper and his other eccentricities.

…And he could be quite thoughtful and unfailingly generous.

Said a longtime acquaintance, “He treated his employees and friends to dinner often and he made sure they had a good time. ‘Have you had enough to eat?’ he would ask. ‘How about trying this?’ He would sit there and wait until everyone was satisfied.

“When Hideo Nomo took his friends out by contrast, Nomo would finish eating ahead of everyone else and then it was time to go, whether anyone else was ready to leave or not. Hideki was a really, really nice guy that way.”

He had a tattoo of a dragon on his back and shoulder which he believed gave him power. He had his own god, a dragon god he called “Ryujin” whom he prayed to and whom he paid tribute to with an assortment of dragon statues, statuettes and figurines that he kept in his home.

If someone he disliked met with some misfortune, Irabu would tell friends that the misfortune had been the doing of “Ryujin.”

But, sadly, he had demons that neither he nor his dragon god could conquer. On the morning of July 27, 2011, an acquaintance stopped by to check in on Hideki and found a gruesome scene: Hideki hanging from a rope in his garage. He had been dead for three days. The odor was overwhelming.

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