July 29, 2011
Hideki Irabu is dead, apparently by his own hand, and his American career will mostly be remembered for disappointment. He was the subject of one of George Steinbrenner's most famous epithets: when he failed multiple times to cover first base on ground balls, the Yankee owner called him a "fat puss-y toad." (As Rob Neyer points out, George meant "pussy" as in pus-filled.)
It's clear that Irabu took it hard. Soon after reports emerged about his death, Buster Olney tweeted: "He always seemed terribly sad in the two years I covered him; he had a lot of troubled times." It was never clear why Irabu simply couldn't hack it in Major League Baseball, and it went well beyond the famously brutal theatrics in New York, as Irabu struggled in Montreal and then again with Texas — where he even became one of the few fireballing starting pitchers who failed in his conversion to closer.
The initial anticipation for Irabu's arrival is almost impossible to overstate: He was the first Japanese player on the Yankees, he was supposed to be the next Nolan Ryan, and at the time, Tom Verducci wrote that his first start "may have been the most anticipated debut by a Yankees rookie since Mickey Mantle." But the disappointment set in almost immediately. The Yankees gave Irabu a $12.8 million contract in 1997, and insulted Andy Pettitte(notes), whom they weren't prepared to pay nearly as well. At the time, Pettitte said, "It's a shame... you'd think that they would take care of me before a Japanese pitcher." Irabu's contract was the richest ever given to a pitcher who had never played in the majors.
Bobby Valentine had managed Irabu with the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995 and recently said that Irabu "was absolutely, other that [sic] Nolan Ryan, the best thrower I had ever seen." Valentine is occasionally prone to hyperbole, but he was absolutely prescient in 1997 when, as manager of the Mets, he said that Irabu might have an easier time pitching for him in Queens than for the Yankees in the Bronx. "I think it's not going to be good for the young lad... He's a very good pitcher. That being said, entering this arena, under these circumstances, is going to make things very difficult. It wouldn't be as difficult here [with the Mets]." Valentine was entirely correct.
Irabu's determination to join the Yankees, forcing the San Diego Padres to trade him and refusing to play for an American team to which he had been traded without his consent, helped change Japanese baseball forever. According to the New York Times, "The route that Irabu took to being traded to the Yankees led directly to the current system in which major league teams pay posting fees for the right to negotiate with Japanese players who are still under contract." The MLB player's union tried to free Irabu from his indenture to his Japanese team, which had negotiated the sale of his rights to the Padres, and though they failed in their battle, the current posting system was established soon thereafter. Less than a decade later, the Boston Red Sox outbid the Yankees by paying a posting fee of $51.1 million to Daisuke Matsuzaka's(notes) team, the Seibu Lions, then signed Matsuzaka himself to a $52 million contract.
Irabu had an up-and-down year in 1997, and his best start of the season was probably his first, June 10, when he went 6 2/3 innings, allowing just two runs and striking out nine. He immediately impressed his teammates with that performance, but he had already impressed his owner. In his second minor league start, as the New York Times writes, Irabu rushed to join a fight and had to be restrained; the next inning, through an interpreter, he asked his manager: "Who do you want me to drill?" His fastball was in the low 90s, rather slower than was hoped for from a Japanese Nolan Ryan, but his splitter was his true out pitch, and it was working that night, though he couldn't do it consistently and he finished the year with several bullpen appearances and an ERA of 7.09.
His best year was also the Yankees' best year, 1998. While the Yankees went 125-50 and swept the World Series, Irabu went 13-9 with a 4.06 ERA -- though it was really a tale of two seasons. In his first 11 starts in April, May and June, Irabu was everything he was cracked up to be: He was 6-2 with a 1.68 ERA, and batters were hitting just .191 off him. Sadly, that was the high point of his career. From that moment on, he had a 5.88 ERA for the rest of the season and a 5.55 ERA for the rest of his time in the majors, including a 5.76 ERA in his last season, when he was the closer for the Rangers in 2002. It brought his career full circle; he had been a closer as a 20-year-old with Lotte. (Back then, the team was called the Orions rather than the Marines.)
Bullpen success proved as fleeting as success in the rotation. Though he had a scoreless outing in his first appearance, he gave up six homers in one week in late May and early June, blew four saves in 20 opportunities and had lost eight games by mid-July, when he was hospitalized with blood clots in his lungs. He never pitched in the majors again.
But he wasn't done pitching. He went back to Japan and pitched for the Hanshin Tigers. Japanese baseball expert Patrick Newman remembered the season. Irabu was terrific in the first half and made the All-Star team; his success led his team, normally "the Cubs of Japan," to a Central League pennant. But Irabu faded down the stretch, as Newman recalls, and he didn't pitch well in the Japan Series, as his Tigers lost to the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. In 2009, he tried to make an American comeback with the Long Beach Armada in an independent minor league. (Jose Lima was a teammate.) Irabu won his first start. The Los Angeles Times interviewed him, and he "insisted he's not thinking much about the majors. He doesn't want the pressure." He was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in 2010, and had otherwise faded from public view.
He had been a very good pitcher in Japan. According to japaneseballplayers.com, he was 72-69 with a 3.55 ERA in parts of 11 seasons there; his best seasons were 1993-1996 with the Marines, when he was 46-34 with a 2.76 ERA. After those seasons, at the time he came over to the Yankees, he was seen by some as the best pitcher in Japan; his nickname was "Kurage," the Jellyfish, because of the sting of his fastball. He gave that nickname up when he came to America; "Typhoon Irabu" signs greeted him at first in New York, but because of his inconsistency, that name didn't stick either. The one name that stuck was the one that Steinbrenner gave him in a fit of pique: Fat Toad.
The man who shared a birthday with John Smoltz(notes) has passed away. His legacy is a cautious reminder of the difficulty that international players often have in adjusting to the big leagues. Some of them manage to sustain success. Others simply never overcome the tremendous hurdle of living up to the hype. Irabu could throw 99 mph, but he couldn't outrun the disappointment. He was 42 years old.