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Pitching From Behind: The sad road of Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu

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Pitching From Behind: The sad road of Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu

by Robert Whiting (Aug 1, 2011)

Last week, former New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu was found dead in his Southern California home, having apparently hanged himself. The 42-year-old Irabu, a baseball sensation in his home country of Japan, had a short, tumultuous career in the United States. In his 2004 book The Meaning of Ichiro, Robert Whiting examined the Irabu's impact on Japanese ballplayers as well as the pitcher's struggles in the major leagues. The following piece has been adapted from Whiting's book and has been updated by the author to reflect events since 2004.

Hideki Irabu was born in 1968 to an Okinawan woman and an American GI, a young man who then departed Japan without leaving a forwarding address. Being racially mixed was not a great advantage in Japan and the difficult topic of his absent biological father was one that Irabu preferred not to discuss publicly, except to confide in one unguarded movement that he wanted one day to go to the United States and become so famous that his father could not help but notice.

Irabu was raised by his mother and stepfather, a restaurateur, in a lower-class section of Osaka. He was an energetic child with a passion for baseball who, by the time he was in the eighth grade, threw such an overpowering fastball that his classmates were afraid to play catch with him. He grew into a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder who was drafted by the Pacific League Lotte Orions at age 19. Because of his Terminator-esque physique, reporters nicknamed him Shuwozenegga. A simple and for the most part congenial youth, he was also burdened with a temper that surfaced often in his school days when fellow students made unflattering remarks about his vaguely Western facial features, as well as in baseball games when he gave up too many hits. Playing for Lotte, he broke his toe kicking the bench after surrendering a home run.

On the other hand, he threw the ball 99 miles per hour in a game in May 1993, a Japan speed record at the time. He earned another nickname, kurage-jellyfish-for the stinging effect his inside deliveries had on batter's hands. 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. In 2006, the Red Sox won the rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka with a $51 million bid, then signed the pitcher to a separate $52 million contract. When Irabu went to the Bronx, he got a four-year deal for $12.8 million.

Once he arrived in America in 1997, Irabu was trailed by a tenacious phalanx of reporters. He despised most of the Japanese press for casting him as a villain for refusing to sign with the Padres, insulting them with derisive names like "locusts" and "goldfish shit." At the ceremony celebrating his Yankees contract, he grandiosely announced a list of offending Japanese publications that he would not deal with. Later in the year, during a stint in the minor leagues, Irabu unleashed an errant pitch that slammed into a photographer. The reporters present assumed it was intentional-"Irabu reportedly smiled during the incident," according to a reporter on the scene-and the sports dailies back home headlined the news of this assault on their front pages, complete with photos of the bruised area and sketches of the "crime scene."

Irabu's relationship with the American media was not significantly better, despite a promising beginning. His debut, a winning effort against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on July 11, 1997, earned him a huge ovation from the rapt crowd of 50,000 fans and glowing headlines in the city's tabloids. It was perhaps his finest moment as a Yankee.

However, this victory was followed by a string of bad outings in which his control and fastball disappeared, along with his manners. During one losing game, Irabu spat in the direction of fans who were booing him. After another poor performance, he punched a hole in the Yankees clubhouse door. Such outbursts quickly made him a target for those tabloids, who excoriated him with headlines like "I-Rob-You" and "Ira-Boo." Yankees owner George Steinbrenner also got into the act, announcing to a group of reporters, "I've got seven Hideki Irabu T-shirts I'm giving to the blind."

Irabu could be a likable young man when he was in a good mood. Cap pushed back, chewing bubble gum, and talking about his forkball, he seemed quite personable. He could also be very generous-to cite one example, he paid off most of his translator George Rose's graduate-school loans with part of his first World Series bonus.

But Irabu was often morose and given to long fits of depression. Despite efforts by Derek Jeter, David Cone, and David Wells to help him integrate into the team, he spent much of his time alone, sitting by himself in the Yankee stadium bullpen out in right center field. On the road, he would shut himself in his hotel room poring over anatomy books, trying to understand physiology. (He liked to draw pictures of the human body and became quite skilled at it.) Still, acquaintances described Irabu as being lonely for company-if he hooked up with you for dinner one night, then he'd call you up the next and the night after to go out. It seemed that when he drank, he liked to do so in the company of others, not home alone as others might.

Irabu's performance in the major leagues was always up and down. In early July 1998, he was leading the American League with a 2.47 ERA; after a spectacularly bad stretch in August and September, that figure ballooned to 4.06. The next season began with a disastrous spring camp. Suffering from what he later described as "private emotional problems," Irabu made several mental lapses in the field. This prompted Steinbrenner, ever the one for delicate understatement, to label him publicly as a "fat, pussy toad." He rebounded with a 9-3 record and was voted American League pitcher of the month for July. But then he experienced another maddening collapse and finished with a record of 11-7 and an ERA of 4.84.

Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemeyre, who worked hard to improve Irabu's game, could not understand how a player could be so good one minute and so bad the next. "When Irabu is on, he has the best stuff of any pitcher I have ever seen anywhere," he said, "but when he is bad he is worse than just about anyone else."

His yo-yo inconsistency-his tendency to pitch brilliantly one game and horribly the next-led some to question his mental fortitude, as did his continued run-ins with reporters. There had been an incident in camp in 1998 when Irabu kicked a Japanese photographer who had shot some video of him without permission. Later, angered over a question he considered offensive, he ripped a reporter's name card and broke his pencil in two.

Marty Kuehnert, the first foreign general manager in Japanese baseball, called Irabu a simple "nut case." Others cited drinking as the cause of his problems. But Irabu's attorney Jean Afterman had another explanation. "He lacked psychological grounding," she said. "Because of his background, Hideki never really had a chance to figure out who he was, unlike other Japanese who came to the States. He didn't have a home or an identity. And I think that was the root of all his trouble."

The Yankees traded Irabu to the Expos after the 1999 season. In Montreal, he underwent elbow and knee surgery, then was suspended for seven days "for failing to respect the terms of his contract." After that it was on to the Texas Rangers, where he had a brief stint as a late-inning relief pitcher before developing blood clots that ended his major league career. In 2003, he landed back in Japan, where he enjoyed brief success with the Hanshin Tigers. But then he retired to Southern California, saying he preferred the relative anonymity of life in America. He tried his hand, not very successfully, as an udon restaurateur. His final, failed comeback attempts came in 2009, with the independent Golden Baseball League and Japan's semi-professional Kochi Fighting Dogs.

In recent years, Irabu's name mostly appeared in the police blotter. In 2008, he was arrested on the suspicion of assaulting the manager of an Osaka bar. He had allegedly consumed 20 mugs of beer. In May 2010, he was arrested in California for drunk driving. His wife reportedly left him this year, taking their two young children. And in July he was found dead in his home, an apparent suicide by hanging.*

Though his major-league career couldn't be considered a success, one part of Irabu's plan did come to pass. The pitcher did, indeed, become famous enough that his biological father took notice. Like in some Field of Dreams scene, his father simply showed up at a game. Father and son eventually met, but Irabu felt frustrated that he lacked the English skills to communicate effectively with his dad.

When I think about Irabu today, I remember the tattoo of a dragon on his upper arm and on the lower right side of his back. It was reportedly part of a religion he created himself and in which he believed deeply. If my understanding is correct, he created a dragon in an attempt to protect himself, and to bring some inner peace.

Correction, Aug. 2, 2011: This article originally stated that Hideki Irabu's wife left him in April. While it's been widely reported that she left this year, the exact date of her departure isn't known. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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