This week in 1997, Hideki Irabu signed a deal that set him up as the next great Yankees ace. It only got darker from there, in ways that still confound years later.
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(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
"I-rob-you," some Yankees fans called him. That was after Hideki Irabu, who was supposed to be to the Yankees what Hideo Nomo had been to the Dodgers, fell on his face. Before that, when Irabu still looked like a potential ace, the tone was notably more triumphant. Owner George Steinbrenner had crowed that Irabu, in refusing to pitch for the San Diego Padres because he wanted to be a Yankee, had "stood up to an entire nation." Less than two years later, after numerous poundings, Steinbrenner called him a "fat pussy toad." That winter, a trade with the Montreal Expos exiled Irabu to Canada. One of the most ballyhooed acquisitions in New York history had officially been stamped a failure, and he had earned it.
The facts of the case are clear. Irabu was a bloated, surly failure. Ballplayers are entertainers, and we as a species have a habit of applauding those entertainers who please us and booing those that don't, a practice which may go back to when humans were little more than cavemen grunting at the weather. Sometimes we throw bouquets. Sometimes we throw batteries, or Reggie! Bars. Right up to the point where it gets ugly, or dangerous, we assume the right to deal abuse comes with the price of a ticket. Nevertheless, Hideki Irabu, whose rights were acquired by the Yankees from the Padres this week in 1997, might have deserved better from us than he got.
Irabu, 28 years old in 1997, had been built up as "the Japanese Nolan Ryan." This is, in retrospect, as much a harbinger of personal doom as being labeled "the next Bob Dylan," but there were reasons to buy into the hype. His fastball ranged from the mid- to high-90s, which was unusual for Japan then; Irabu was, at the time, the owner of the fastest pitch clocked in Japanese baseball history (95 mph, May 3, 1993). He had led the Pacific League in strikeouts in 1994 and 1995 and ERA in 1995 and 1996. This was no statistical illusion caused by the disparity in skill level between American and Japanese leagues, either. Irabu had the stuff, he had the results, and so seemed as certain to click in the U.S. as sushi, "Star Blazers," and Pokémon.
Wrong. The results were more like "The Pink Lady and Jeff." This was all the more devastating to Irabu's reputation because of the long buildup to his arrival caused by protracted negotiations between the Chiba Lotte Marines and the Padres, and then between the Padres and the Yankees; all told, the process took months. There was no posting system then, so when Irabu told the Marines he would either pitch in the U.S. or "retire" and gain his free agency (Nomo's route to the Dodgers), his club tried to salvage some value by selling him to the Padres. Irabu had no interest in playing in San Diego. Citing a desire to follow in the footsteps of Ruth, Gehrig, and Mantle, he said he would pitch for the Yankees or hold out. He eventually wound up with a four-year, $12.8 million contract, with a fifth-year option and a $7.5 million signing bonus, and a locker in the Bronx. Add in the $3 million and players that changed hands in the deal, including then-top prospect Ruben Rivera, and Irabu arrived with expectations that outweighed even the significant hype.
Irabu tore through the minors—six starts, 2.32 ERA, one walk against 34 strikeouts in 31 innings—and his major league debut on July 10 was a strong one; he allowed just two runs in six and two-thirds innings, walking four but striking out nine. His next three starts were disastrous, however, and with his ERA at 7.97, the Yankees sent him to the minors for about three weeks. Manager Joe Torre observed that mentally the pitcher was "too clogged up." The fix didn't take, and Irabu would finish out the season in the bullpen. "I'm perfectly satisfied with him as a pitcher," Steinbrenner had said when Irabu went to the minors. "If you want to blame someone, blame me." That uncharacteristically forgiving attitude didn't last.
For all the reasons things didn't work out for Irabu, one in particular stands out: man, was it ever easy for batters to hit home runs against Irabu. His fastball was so straight it could have run for the North Carolina state legislature, and because he frequently couldn't throw his other pitches for strikes, batters sat on it and treated it rudely when it arrived. Beginning in June of 1998, Irabu allowed between one and three round-trippers in six consecutive starts. Even now, the aggregate line is astounding—
—astounding that the results weren't worse. During Irabu's six seasons in the majors, no pitcher with as many or more innings pitched allowed home runs with the same frequency he did.
Beyond his generosity in serving up taters, very little about Irabu was endearing. He was heavy-set and saturnine. He brawled with Japanese reporters during spring training in 1998, stomping on one's foot. Despite the services of a translator, he was not any more eager to answer questions from American reporters. If he received a question he didn't like, he would roll his eyes and refuse to answer. The language barrier and the pitcher's attitude made it impossible for teammates to get to know him. The feeling was apparently mutual. Years later, during spring training in 2004, Irabu pitched against a Rays club that carried some ex-Yankees on its roster. He was asked if he wanted to see any of his former teammates. Irabu gave his answer in English, ''No, I don't.''
Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Lefty Grove... You can name any number of Hall of Famers who were no fun to be around most of the time, and if Irabu had played at their level his attitude would have mattered less. What must have frustrated him, and everyone around him, was that at times he really could do it. In 1998, he had a 1.68 ERA through his first 11 starts and won the AL Pitcher of the Month Award for May. Then came the aforementioned home-run barrage. His ERA thereafter was 5.88 and the Yankees dumped him from the postseason rotation. In 1999 it was more of the same, with the hot streak coming in June and July—10 starts, 6-0 record, 2.88 ERA in 68.2 innings, another Pitcher of the Month Award—before spending the rest of the season, before and after, as the Japanese equivalent of a piñata. That winter he was sent to Montreal.
''Maybe he gets a chance to start fresh, in a new country with a new team,'' Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. ''In New York it's a tough situation. It's not for everybody... That might be the case with Hideki.'' And yet New York was what Irabu had wanted. How painful it must have been to get where you want to be, only to discover that you have only risen to the level of your own incompetence. Based on his later actions, there is reason to infer that Irabu understood this. If not, he was often enough reminded by the anonymous millions.
If you're going to go along with me on the idea that everyone involved, from Steinbrenner to the fans, could have handled the Irabu situation better, I will need to convince you to be more patient and generous than post-cavemen/baseball fans are usually asked to be. What I question is if we've earned the right to jeer the performer, to boo—I-rah-boo, that was another thing they called him, because of the sounds his pitching inspired. He was 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA in a six-year career. Surely that is worthy of some sort of condemnation given his promise. What I am suggesting is that failure is painful enough without adding any extra dehumanization to it.
Irabu pitched poorly in Montreal and then for Texas, injuries making things harder. He went back to Japan in 2003 and pitched well for the pennant-winning Hanshin Tigers. The staff leader was another future Yankees disaster, Kei Igawa. You wonder if they could feel each other's ghosts passing in time, headed in opposite directions. More injuries forced Irabu into retirement shortly thereafter. There was a comeback attempt. At 40, looking 60, he pitched for the Long Beach Armada in the Golden Baseball League in a rotation with another doomed former big league starter, Jose Lima. It was the kind of low-level independent circuit where fans passed the hat after the game to pay the players something more than their meager salaries. Irabu had dropped 40 pounds to get into shape, and while the results weren't terrible, no one further up the ladder bit. An audition with the Kochi Fighting Dogs, part of Japan's obscure Shikoku Island League, did not go well.
On July 27, 2011, Irabu hung himself.
He did not leave a note, but his personal and business affairs were said to be in poor shape. His wife and two children had left. There had been a DUI arrest and at least one other alcohol-related incident.
We don't know what was going through Hideki Irabu's mind when he decided to take his own life. The responsibility for that appalling decision, for his isolation, for the haughtiness that failed to endear him to fans and teammates, are his alone. His suicide happened long enough after he finished with baseball that perhaps one had nothing to do with the other. There is no way of knowing how his life would have unfolded if he had done well. If he had in some sense been loved as a player, or had a Hall of Fame career, or could look at his number hanging on the wall at Yankee Stadium, it is tempting to think he'd be alive today. It's never that easy, but there are only so many things to think in the face of that darkness.
And so we end with sympathy for Hideki, a prayer that all the aggregate booing and watching balls travel over the wall played no part in finishing him. There is a lesson in his failure, too, that is broader than his short career suggests. When they tell you that you are no greater than the sum of your mistakes, when they say you are no better than your worst moment and somehow convince you that it's true, when they say you are worthless, they're telling a lie intended to deprive you of the empathy and the grace that is due us all. They rob you.