Pitching From Behind
The sad road of Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu.
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."