When Irabu first came to the United States, he was billed as the Japanese Roger Clemens, but his career yielded more punch lines than punch outs. That’s why it’s easy to forget he was once one of the most coveted international free agents in recent memory.
In the winter of 1997, the San Diego Padres were granted the right to exclusively negotiate with Irabu, who, as a member of the Chiba Lotte Marines, was considered by many to be the best pitcher in Japan. However, Irabu had other plans. He only wanted to play for the Yankees. After much wrangling between the Marines, Padres and Yankees, Irabu was finally able to strong arm his way to New York. At the time, it seemed like a match made in heaven. One of the best international pitchers was bringing his star to Broadway. What could possibly go wrong?
During the All Star break, the Yankees decided that it was time to summon Irabu to the Bronx. Over 51,000 fans packed the Stadium to see his debut on July 10, 1997, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. With the exception of Opening Day and the inaugural interleague series against the Mets, it was the largest crowd of the season, and despite being just a regular season game, the level of anticipation rivaled October.
This was more than I ever dreamed about or imagined for this night. The support of the team is something I can’t compare. I wouldn’t sell what I was able to feel today for anything.”– Hideki Irabu, quoted in the New York Daily News, July 11, 1997
Over 6 2/3 innings, Irabu struck out nine Tigers, each one sending the Stadium crowd into an increasing state of delirium. After the game, which was an anti-climatic 10-3 victory, the excitement was still palpable. Although the Yankees had failed to get the real Roger Clemens during the offseason, it appeared as if they had found the next best thing. Then reality set in. Over his next seven starts, which were interrupted by a stint in the minors, Irabu posted an ERA of 8.72. Soon thereafter, he was demoted to the bullpen and then left off the playoff roster. As quickly as he burst on the scene, Irabu’s star had been extinguished.
Well, that’s not really true. Following his dismal debut, it would have been easy for Irabu to crawl into a shell, but instead, the right hander rebounded with a strong season in 1998. What’s more, for a stretch during that historic season, Irabu was actually the best pitcher on the team. In fact, in May, the same month in which David Wells threw a perfect game, Irabu was named the best pitcher in the American League. Although his second half was marred by poor performance, Irabu was still an important part of one of the best teams in baseball history.
In 1999, the Yankees stopped settling for the Japanese version of Roger Clemens and acquired the real thing. During that season, Clemens and Irabu pitched as members of the same staff and posted very similar statistics. What’s more, Irabu also wound up relieving Clemens in game three of the 1999 ALCS. In two innings, the Rocket gave up five runs; in four-plus, Irabu surrendered eight. Ironically, these two pitchers, linked because of their unique talent, were finally united in shared disappointment.
Roger Clemens vs. Hideki Irabu, 1999 Stats
Despite having a respectable season, 1999 was still the year that Irabu unfairly became the joke most now remember. In particular, one inconsequential event during Spring Training branded him for the rest of his career. After failing to cover first base on a ground ball, Irabu was blasted in the media by Yankees’ owner George M. Steinbrenner. He’s a “fat pussy toad”, the Boss roared. Although Steinbrenner would later apologize for his outburst, that insult would follow Irabu around and eventually become his legacy.
Irabu last crossed paths with the Yankees on June 13, 2001. Now a member of the Expos, the right hander was scheduled to face the Bronx Bombers in an interleague matchup at Yankee Stadium. Naturally, his mound opponent was Roger Clemens. Unlike his debut four years earlier, there was no excitement in the crowd. His second innings strikeouts of Scott Brosius and Alfonso Soriano didn’t elicit a cheer. The Yankees won the game 9-3, but this time Irabu was just an afterthought. “The Yankees are the Yankees,” Irabu told the press after the game. It was a lesson he learned the hard way.
During his career, Irabu, like most ball players, wasn’t a stranger to alcohol. After his debut performance, he answered questions with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It would be a regular scene after one of his starts. Beer always seemed to be a comfort for Irabu. The Yankees even went so far as to stock all team facilities with Sapporo so Irabu would feel more at home. After his retirement, however, it soon became clear that his relationship with alcohol was more than recreational. In 2008, Irabu was arrested in Japan for allegedly attacking a bartender after consuming 20 mugs of beer. Then, in May 2010, he was pulled over by the LAPD and booked on suspicion of drunken driving. Whether it existed during his playing days, or developed as a crutch in retirement, Irabu had a drinking problem.
Who knows what other problems Irabu had? There must have been many. What else could drive a man to hang himself, especially one who had accomplished so much? It’s almost hard to fathom, unless, of course, like everyone else, he viewed himself as a failure.
When Irabu walked off the mound after his major league debut, everyone showered him with affection. After the game, he talked about how good that reaction made him feel, but, unfortunately, those kinds of moments were few and far between. We’ll likely never know whether Irabu’s inability to live up to lofty expectations ultimately culminated in his demise, but if so, it’s hard not to think that every slow walk from the mound after a bad outing, often to a chorus of boos, was bringing him one step closer to his tragic fate.
Selfishly, it’s more comforting to think that alcoholism, or some other deep rooted psychological problem, led to Irabu’s despair. It couldn’t have been his lackluster major league career. Suicide for any reason is tragic, but for Irabu, it would be an even greater shame if the reason he took his own life was simply because he was never able to be the Japanese Roger Clemens.