Hideki Irabu, RIP: The Troubled Dream

Hideki Irabu, a troublesome and troubled Yankee . . .

Did Hideki Irabu’s various crashes and prolonged burn finally cost him what mattered most, in turn costing him his life at 42?

Once an overhyped Japanese import in a Yankee uniform, Irabu was living mostly quietly in a well-to-do southern California suburb when, two months before his suicide Thursday, his wife, Kyonsu, left him and took their two little daughters with her. A neighbour told reporters the former pitcher seemed very down, not his usual “perky” self, since those departures.

“Perky” isn’t an adjective usually associated with Irabu and never had been since his arrival in the United States under a combined weight of smothering hype and smothering criticism. The same neighbour turned out to be the one to whom other friends of Irabu’s came running Thursday, from his modest home (by the standards of the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Rancho Paolos), to ask her to call police. Apparently, Irabu forged himself friendlier environs there than he was able to do in baseball clubhouses.

Whether in his native Japan or in the American Show, Irabu never seemed the most comfortable of players. It isn’t easy launching a new career phase when it begins as did his in 1997. He’d already been touted as Japan’s Nolan Ryan, after he threw fastballs reading 98 mph on the guns, unheard-of in Japan at that time. Then, the San Diego Padres bought his contract from the Chiba Lotte Marines and Irabu made his first mistake. Half-American, though he never knew his American sire and was raised entirely in Japan when his mother married a Japanese man, Irabu made it known his “dream” in American baseball was to play for the New York Yankees.

In most places where American baseball is revered around the world, this might have seemed only natural considering the Yankees’ identification as champions and American icons. In Japan, however, that kind of proclamation was considered disrespectful. And it didn’t sit well with the Japanese press or with his Japanese league mates. The Padres accommodated Irabu by trading him (with Homer Bush) to the Yankees (for Ruben Rivera, Rafael Medina, and $3 million).

Maybe all Irabu wanted was to pitch for the Yankees, but what he got at the moment he arrived in New York was hyperdrive hype. It only began with no less than Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, unapologetic Yankee fan, presenting the chunky, reserved Irabu a Tiffany apple and proclaiming his arrival symbolic of not just the American immigrant experience but of the immigrant experience that so often commenced in New York itself. Lay that upon the Japanese Nolan Ryan and anything short of a perfect game to open would have been considered a let down, if not the second coming of Pearl Harbour.

Hideo Nomo, who was allowed to break in gently . . .

To find an opposite parallel, you have to reach two years before Irabu’s arrival, ironically enough to the city in whose suburb Irabu’s life would end around his own neck. Similarly introverted, though not similarly insular, Hideo Nomo was allowed to break in a lot more gently with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nobody jumped to proclaim him The Symbol of America’s immigrant experience, which may have been particularly telling considering southern California’s Oriental presence. Nobody jumped to hang a halo around Nomo’s head, at least not until he’d pitched a few games in the Dodger system before making the parent club in May 1995 and pitching precisely like the National League’s Rookie of the Year he was eventually named.

Nobody hung the high-stretching, corkscrew-turning righthander with any tag comparing him to any off-the-chart American pitching legend before he began. But Nomo did shatter Sandy Koufax’s club record for strikeouts per nine, eclipsing Koufax’s 10.5 with his own 11.1. The Japanese media may have followed Nomo in throngs once he’d made it to the Dodgers, and Nomomania may have snowballed to the point where his starts were broadcast live back to Japan, even though Japan was just getting out of bed when Nomo threw his first pitches, but at least one and all let Nomo break in gently and show his stuff before letting the hype machine holler.

Irabu opened by striking out nine Tigers in six and two thirds before finishing 1997 with a less-than-stellar 5-4/7.09 ERA/1.67 WHIP. But in 1998 it looked at first as though he wasn’t just going to live up to the hype, he was going to explode it. He went 13-9/4.06/1.30, all phenomenal improvements over his premiere American season, and he’d opened the season with a 6-1 record and an ERA under two. The bad news was that Irabu’s apparently indifferent work habits and insularity may have helped cost him a chance to pitch in the postseason that climaxed the 1998 Yankees’ stupefying run.

Irabu already had befuddled teammates and overlords alike, who noticed he seemed completely lost and often in another dimension when he wasn’t on the mound. Stories abounded about the contradictory carriage of a young man who swore by wearing magnets over his body as a circulation booster yet chain smoked cigarettes by his locker. Unlike a later Yankee import from Japan named Hideki Matsui, Irabu wasn’t the outgoing type even allowing the language barrier. The pitcher who’d proclaimed publicly his dream of pitching for the Yankees didn’t act one iota like a man living the dream when he got his wish.

That may have been the backstory behind the spring training 1999 incident that probably did the most to seal Irabu’s baseball fate. Failing to cover first base in an early exhibition game, and with George Steinbrenner watching the game, Irabu became the next great target of the next infamous Steinbrenner rant—the “fat pus-sy toad” rant that, when seen on paper only, looked like something else entirely and hung Irabu with a no-guts tag he didn’t necessarily earn.

Anyone watching Irabu’s only postseason appearance, in the 1999 American League Championship Series, should have thrown the no-guts tag right off his back. Can you think of any conscionable reason why manager Joe Torre would have left Irabu in to take an eight-run, thirteen-hit beating for four and two thirds innings, in Fenway Park, which is exactly what happened when Irabu relieved Roger Clemens, already in the hole 4-0, in the top of the third, after Mike Stanley led off with a base hit? Unless, sensing the Red Sox were on and the Yankees weren’t likely to do much against Pedro Martinez, who didn’t know the meaning of the word quit against them most of the time, Torre figured Irabu as a sacrificial lamb allowing his nucleus to regroup and finish what they started after opening the set with a pair of one-run wins?

Actually, once he’d opened by surrendering a two-run homer to Brian Daubach, Irabu worked respectably for the next two innings for which he’s credited. It wasn’t necessarily his fault the Yankees couldn’t hit Martinez with a hangar door while the Red Sox’ batsmen were feeling especially frisky even against Clemens. Irabu followed the Daubach bomb by sandwiching a pair of groundouts around Trot Nixon’s double and then getting John Valentin to fly out for the side. And he squirmed out of a first-and-third, one-out threat by luring Stanley into dialing area code 6-4-3 in the fourth. But in the Boston fifth, alas, Irabu was touched for back-to-back doubles (Daubach, Darren Lewis) to open. Then, he struck out Nixon and Jose Offerman back-to-back. Valentin singled, making it second and third on an infield error, before Irabu struck Jason Varitek out for the side, but the Yankees were in the hole 8-0.

I remember being surprised to have seen Irabu left in the game that far, but—incomprehensibly—there he was coming out to pitch the sixth. He surrendered a leadoff single to Nomar Garciaparra but he got Troy O’Leary to force Garciaparra at second and Stanley to fly out to left. Then Daubach lofted a fly to left that was mishandled by Ricky Ledee, allowing O’Leary to score while Daubach took second, before Irabu got Lewis to fly out to Bernie Williams for the side. And it wasn’t over yet. Unbelievably, Irabu was sent out to pitch the seventh, while Torre pulled Paul O’Neill out of the game, moved Ledee to replace him in right field, and sending Chad Curtis out to play left field.  Nixon opened with a base hit, taking second on Offerman’s infield out. But then Valentin singled Nixon home, and Garciaparra followed Varitek’s infield popout with a two-run homer, after which O’Leary doubled off the Monster and Stanley singled him home.

Only then did Torre finally get Irabu the hell out of there in favour of Mike Stanton, who got pinch-hitter Butch Huskey on a groundout for the side but still finished the inning with the Yankees in the hole 13-0. They’d save themselves a humiliating shutout when Scott Brosius led off the top of the eighth with a solo bomb, but that’s where the score finished. It was the only Red Sox win in the set.

Maybe the Yankees combined frustration with taking a little pity on their wounded import, trading him to the Montreal Expos (for Jake Westbrook and Ted Lilly) after the season. But maybe beneath the seeming indifference Irabu’s pride had been shattered irrevocably. Two years and modest performance after that trade, Irabu was on rehab with the Expos’ Ottawa farm when he got drunk and had to be scratched from a scheduled start, earning a suspension in the bargain. The Expos released him after that season. The Texas Rangers signed him as a free agent on a single-season deal worth less than half his former annual Yankee salary and converted him to relief pitching, in which role he pitched debatably enough—he did compile sixteen saves, but he finished the season with a 5.74 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP.

Irabu never appeared in the American majors again. He may have had enough after that lone Texas season; he returned to Japan and pitched for the Hanshin Tigers for two seasons before retiring. Along the way, he was involved in a briefly infamous altercation in a Japanese bar, pounding down twenty beers and fuming when his credit card was rejected, decking a bartender in the process. But American baseball proved to keep alluring him; he signed with the independent Golden State League’s Long Beach Armada for 2009, but after a short spell there he returned to Japan and pitched until last year.

He seems to have experienced kinship enough in southern California to make it his home, owning the aforesaid modest, two-story ranch with a rectangular pool framing one side. But alcohol and Irabu remained a troublesome mix. He was arrested for driving drunk in May 2010.

Who knows whether the broken promise of his major league life took a greater toll upon Irabu’s psyche than he was willing to admit? When he first reached to American baseball, his Marines manager said he “just [had] a feeling” it wasn’t going to go anywhere near as well for Irabu as it had for Nomo. Who knows whether the demons that drove his wife and daughters to leave him finally drove him beyond any point where he might have finished the reassembly he hadn’t necessarily gotten halfway toward making?

Hideki Irabu. A benign introvert who only thought he had it made, once.

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