Hideki Irabu stood up, raised his hand in an animated way and drew an imaginary box around the perimeter of his locker at Yankee Stadium. That was Irabu’s blunt way of telling reporters that we shouldn’t invade his space, even if the walls he created with his finger were imaginary. I had never seen a player do that.
When I heard about Irabu’s death at the age of 42 years old on Thursday and heard that the Los Angeles police said it was an apparent suicide, I thought about that clubhouse scene. Irabu was dubbed the Nolan Ryan of Japan and he desperately wanted to pitch for the Yankees, but, once he helped force that into happening, he never seemed happy in New York.
I have no idea what it’s like to relocate to a foreign country and try to succeed in a place where you don’t speak the language. Few of us do. When Irabu decided to leave Japan in 1997 and pitch in the United States, he knew there would be obstacles, endless obstacles. Irabu believed that he was talented enough to excel and, I’m guessing, believed that his stubbornness would help him, too. He would thrive, even if it meant being a loner.
For most of Irabu’s time with the Yankees from 1997-1999, he was a loner. He didn’t interact much with his teammates and he viewed the news media as an annoyance. Irabu had been a superstar in Japan, the man with the 99 mile per hour fastball, so all of his words and actions were dissected. He zealously guarded his privacy in his native country, an approach that he continued in the United States.
In the beginning, Irabu’s marriage to the Yankees looked like it would be special, as he stifled the Detroit Tigers, 10-3, in his debut on July 10, 1997. With 51,901 pairs of eyes staring at Irabu, he showed excellent poise and also showed off a solid fastball, a nasty split-finger fastball and a decent curveball in whiffing nine and allowing two runs in six and two thirds innings. Presumably, Irabu had conquered New York.
“He literally took on a nation to come here,” said George Steinbrenner, the principal owner. “He said, ‘I want New York.’"
There were 300 reporters, including 100 from Japan, covering the game. In addition, about 35 million people in Japan watched Irabu’s debut on television. None of it bothered him.
“It was remarkable what he did with all the hoopla that was going on,” said Manager Joe Torre. “We knew it was going to take on a carnival-like atmosphere. No one was disappointed.”
Eventually, Irabu, who was 5-4 with a 7.09 earned run average in 1997, would disappoint the Yankees. He opened 1998 by going 6-1 with a 1.59, but finished 13-9 with a 4.06. He was 11-7 with a 4.84 in 1999, including winning eight straight decisions. After that season, the Yankees traded Irabu to the Montreal Expos. He finished 34-35 with a 5.15 in his career.
While there were stretches where Irabu was effective, he was never consistently reliable. That wouldn’t have been such a terrible thing if there weren’t such lofty expectations for Irabu. Steinbrenner, who loved having stars on his roster, wanted the Japanese Nolan Ryan. But he learned that pitcher didn’t exist.
It’s impossible to chronicle Irabu’s career without detailing an incident from what should have been a harmless exhibition game in 1999. When Irabu failed to cover first for the second straight game, it infuriated Steinbrenner and unleashed an awkward series of events around a team waiting to leave Tampa and fly to Los Angeles to two exhibition games.
A few minutes after Irabu’s mistake, Steinbrenner criticized the 253-pound pitcher.
“He looked like a fat, p***y (rhymes with fussy) toad out there, not covering first base,” Steinbrenner said. “I don’t know what you got to do. That’s not a Yankee.”
Irabu, who was typically bland in interviews, raised his voice that day and said that he couldn’t understand why he was being questioned for not having “any guts” or “any fight.” He lamented that he was being judged “on a play-by-play basis rather than my overall play.”
While the Yankees sorted out what to do about Irabu, the rest of the dumbfounded players sat by their lockers in sports coats and the buses to the airport idled. Irabu, who was already a distraction, became an even bigger distraction. David Cone joked that the Yankees would have to wait an extra day before leaving town. Bernie Williams ordered 20 pizzas for the hungry players. The Yankees left without Irabu, leaving him behind in Tampa to workout.
Writing an obituary about Irabu, who was younger than me, was a daunting assignment. Yes, I covered Irabu. But, because of the language barrier and because he didn’t trust reporters, I never had the opportunity to really get to know Irabu in the way I’ve gotten to know so many other players. That’s unfortunate.
As I was searching for a way to finish this piece, I received a text from my cousin, Gerald Bruno. He lamented Irabu’s passing and added, “I remember when he offered to buy you a beer.” That is true. Apparently, Irabu wanted to make a peace offering with the beat writers and he bought me a beer one night. Now that Irabu has left this world in a terrible way, that’s one positive story I’ll remember about him.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES