Thursday, July 28, 2011

Former Yankees Pitcher Hideki Irabu Found Dead Of Apparent Sucide

The long and troubling road of former New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu came to a sad ending today.  The one-time Japanese Pacific League star, and Major League bust, was found dead at age 42 of an apparent suicide in his Rancho Palo Verdes, California home.

Irabu was one of the of the key members of the great 1998 Yankees team which beat the San Diego Padres in the World Series and the Yankees team which beat the Atlanta Braves in1999 for the championship; although Irabu never threw a pitch in either series.

The much-maligned Irabu was once called the "Nolan Ryan of Japan" when he tore through the Japanese leagues.  After Hideo Nomo successfully blazed a trail for Japanese pitchers, the exotic Irabu was brought to the U.S. in 1997 with high hopes.  Japanese fans--many who had never even seen a Yankees game-- came by the thousands to the Bronx.

Irabu's most famous moment in the majors is probably when he ended up being called a "fat... toad" by Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner, after the hefty righthander failed to cover first base during a game.  Steinbrenner became increasingly more disgusted with his investment and the fact that he wasn't living up to the $12.8, four-year contract during his years with the team.

The Yankees first traded for Irabu-- after he refused to go to the San Diego Padres-- and the 28 year-old Irabu made his debut on July 10, 1997 against the Detroit Tigers in grand style.

Irabu thrilled the crowd of 51,000 as he struck out nine with a 96 mph fastball and got his first major league victory.  Current Yankees manager, Joe Girardi, was the catcher that day. After that auspicious opening act, it seemed like it was all downhill from there.

Irabu's abrasive personality, lazy habits and language barrier caused bickering with teammates and the media.  During spring training in 1998, Yankees pitcher David Cone finally had enough and verbally laid into the slacking Irabu in the locker room.

The increasingly unpopular Irabu finished the 1998 season 13-9 with a 4.06 ERA but manager Joe Torre had so little faith in Irabu, he kept the high-priced starter on the bench during the entire Yankees playoff run and World Series victory over the Padres.

Irabu went 11-7 during the 1999 season, which didn't satisfy Steinbrenner and he was traded to the Montreal Expos for Jake Westbrook and Ted Lilly.

Irabu fared no better up north.  He gained weight and reportedly drank to excess.  Knee and elbow surgeries plagued the ever-fattening Irabu and he was finally suspended by the Expos while on a rehab assignment in Triple-A.  He played 14 games for the Expos and finished with a 2-7 record and 6.69 ERA.

The last chapter of Irabu's major league career ended before the 2002 season, when the Texas Rangers tried to convert the burned out Irabu into a closer.  It was a major failure.

Irabu made millions from the Yankees but never made a mark in the league-- excluding the brilliant first game he pitched.

He was arrested for a bar fight in 2008 and a DUI in 2010.  The reclusive Irabu attempted a comeback in Japan in 2009 but shied away from the media until his arrests and ending with the sad news of his death today.

"He was found dead by an apparent suicide," said Los Angeles County Sherriff's Sgt. Michael Arriaga to AP.

During six seasons in the majors (1997-2002), Irabu finished with a 34-35 record and a 5.15 ERA.  His poetic legacy may be that he was an integral part of two World Series Championship teams but never played in one.

Irabu should be remembered for widening the door for Japanese position players like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

The tragic reality is maybe, if Hideki Irabu never came to America, he would still be alive right now.

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