Before George Steinbrenner would, cruelly, give him a different nickname which we’ll get to in a minute, Hideki Irabu was known as “the Japanese Nolan Ryan.” He sort of looked like the Japanese Roger Clemens, actually. He was 6’4″ and 250 pounds and pitched at a time when most Japanese pitchers were slighter guys whose games were more about finesse than power. That wasn’t Irabu’s game. He was a hard-thrower, leading NPB’s Pacific League in wins in 1994, in ERA in 1995 and 1996, and in strikeouts in 1994 and 1995. He was a pretty damn big deal.
And he wanted to a big deal in America. Which, at the time was not exactly an easy thing to do for a Japanese player.
While we’re all basically familiar with the posting system which controls how Japanese players come to the American big leagues, but such a process didn’t yet exist in 1997. In its absence existed two options: (a) playing ten years in Japan and becoming a true free agent, like Hideo Nomo had done; or (b) having your team make a side deal with a U.S. team and basically selling your rights to them. In Irabu’s case, the San Diego Padres entered into a an agreement with Irabu’s team in Japan, the Chiba Lotte Marines, guaranteeing the Padres exclusive rights to the ace. This angered a number of major league teams that wanted to bid for him and that anger eventually led to the posting system, but for Irabu it was the Padres or nothing.
Or maybe not.
The Padres-Marines deal didn’t set well with Irabu. After being subjected to Japan’s reserve clause for so long he, at age 28, wanted at least some say in where he’d play. His agent, Don Nomura, and his agent’s lawyer, future Yankees assistant general manager Jean Afterman, had his back when he declined to report to the Padres. They continued to have his back to get him where he wanted to play. Here’s Irabu, in January 1997, saying where that was:
“I have absolutely no desire to conclude a contract with San Diego . . . My first pick is the Yankees. All I can say for now is that I have told this to my agent and that there has been no change in my wishes.”
San Diego Padres president Larry Lucchino was not worried. His response:
“I’m not surprised, and we’re fully prepared to advance the Padres’ interest no matter who from New York or elsewhere wants to take issue with us . . . We think that when we have a chance to speak with him, we’ll be able to adjust his perspective. We know what a desirable place San Diego is and how desirable a team the Padres are, so we remain hopeful. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.”
And it wasn’t. Irabu held firm. It was the Yankees or nothing. Lucchino caved and, on this date in 1997 he agreed to trade the rights to Irabu to New York in exchange for minor leaguers Ruben Rivera and Rafael Medina plus $3 million in cash.
In light of the attention given to Irabu during his Padres holdout and given the fact that Rivera was, at the time, considered the Yankees’ top prospect, there were considerable expectations of the young man. When he signed a four year, $12.8 Million contract — which was pretty big for someone with zero big league experience at the time — those expectations only grew.
For a very brief time he actually met them.
Irabu made six minor league starts before he saw any big league action, posting a 2.32 ERA, issuing just one walk and striking out 34 batters in 31 innings. He was called up and made his first big league start on July 10, 1997 against the Detroit Tigers. It was a decent one: he allowed two runs in six and two-thirds innings, striking out nine. The only worrisome note was that he walked four, but hey, if the American Nolan Ryan could walk a lot of guys and still be great, why couldn’t the Japanese Nolan Ryan do it too?
Then the bottom fell out. Over his next three starts, Irabu gave up 16 runs. Thanks to the powerful Yankees offense he actually won one of them, but his ERA after four outings stood at 7.97. Manager Joe Torre told the press that his mental approach was the problem and the Yankees sent him back down to the minors in an effort get him back on track. He was fine there, but when he returned to the Yankees in mid-August he struggled for four more starts before being sent to the bullpen for mop-up duty for the remainder of the season. He’d finish the year 5-4 with a 7.09 ERA while giving up an astounding 15 homers in only 53.1 innings. The Yankees would finish the 1997 two games back of the Orioles. It would be the only time they would not win the AL East in an 11-year stretch and would be the only time they didn’t make the World Series in a six-year stretch.
Irabu would never be a star in the United States, but he was at least an adequate starter in his two subsequent years in New York, going 24-16 with a 4.44 ERA, which was an ERA+ of 103 in that high-offense era. That’s above average and, in any event, the 114-win 1998 Yankees and 98-win 1999 Yankees — World Series champs both years — did not feel like they had better options. They gave Irabu 28 and 27 starts, respectively in those two seasons.
Irabu made no friends at all, however, with either his teammates, his organization, or with the media. Most especially he made no friends with his team’s owner. The story of how Irabu was saddled with his infamous nickname is often mangled — and the nickname itself is often misstated — so let’s go to the original source. This was how it all went down just before the start of the 1999 season according to the New York Post:
TAMPA – A mentally shattered Hideki Irabu begged the Yankees to leave him behind in their minor league camp instead of taking him to Los Angeles last night. One hour after George Steinbrenner verbally attacked the beleaguered pitcher for failing to cover first base for the second straight game, Irabu told The Boss he wanted no part of traveling with the World Champions.
After watching Irabu not get to first to take Clay Bellinger’s toss in the ninth inning against the Indians, a livid Steinbrenner added to his legend.
“He looks like a fat, pus-ie [rhymes with fussy] toad out there,” a seething Boss said as he made his way from the Legends Field clubhouse to the elevators, where he met Lin Garrett and Gordon Blakeley, members of Steinbrenner’s Inner Circle. “That’s not a Yankee. Come on, guys, we are going to meet again.”
Irabu would still get those 27 starts and a second World Series ring in 1999, but it would be his last year as a Yankee. Brian Cashman would trade Irabu to the Montreal for Jake Westbrook and two players to be named later, who ended up being Ted Lilly and Christian Parker. The Expos would release him toward the end of the 2001 season. He’d pitch for the Rangers in 2002, actually serving as their closer and saving 16 games, but the overall results were poor. In all, his post-Yankees career consisted of a 5-15 record with a 6.31 ERA in 118.1 innings over three injury-plagued seasons.
Irabu returned to Japan after that and had a nice 2003 campaign for the Hanshin Tigers, going 13-8 with a 3.85 ERA before knee pain shut him down early in the 2004 season and, eventually, causing him to retire with a career record of 72-69 and a 3.55 ERA in Japan. Irabu would attempt comebacks afterwards. As a 40-year-old in 2009 he went 5-3 with a 3.58 ERA for Long Beach of the Golden Baseball League before again calling it a career.
On the baseball side of things one can’t help but wonder how much better things would have gone for him if he’d have agreed to stay in San Diego and play for the Padres. Pitching in the lower-offense National League and in the far less-homer happy park of Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium might’ve aided his fly ball tendencies somewhat. And, obviously, Irabu never seemed equipped to deal with the pressures of New York.
Then again, based on what we learned about him later — and based on his ultimate fate — maybe nothing would’ve saved him.
After Irabu’s playing days were over he became listless and depressed. He was a man of big appetites when he played and, without the structure of baseball, those big appetites — for alcohol, particularly — contributed to his undoing. Also contributing: a lack of identity or purpose, much of which was tied up in his lack of belonging. He was of mixed heritage, with his father being an American military man who was stationed on Okinawa and who Irbau would not meet until adulthood. Growing up, this caused him to be taunted, making Japan something less than home for him. After meeting his father upon arriving in America, the two would not become close. Too much time and history had passed.
He would spend the rest of his life the way he had spent so much of it: not fitting in anywhere, drinking heavily and, on multiple occasions, getting into legal trouble. He remained in America after his playing days were over, living in Southern California, but he never really got acclimated. Over time, it was reported, his wife and children “had become acculturated to American life” in ways he never could and left him.
On July 27, 2011 Hideki Irabu took his own life. “Self-inflicted with rope” was listed as the official cause of death.
In August of 2017, Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated wrote the definitive story about Hideki Irabu and his sad and complicated life. It fills in the gaps most of us likely never thought much about. That story tells us that, even if he was not the player he was advertised to be, Irabu was more than the man George Steinbrenner called a “fat toad.”
It’s worth a read, especially if you don’t know much more about Irabu than that name and the fact that he disappointed the New York Yankees.
Also today in baseball history:
1876: The first National League game is played. Boston beats Philadelphia, in Philadelphia, 5-4.
1914: A 19-year-old Babe Ruth plays his first professional game. He’s the pitcher for Baltimore of the International League and tosses a six-hit shutout over Buffalo while collecting two hits. One of the batters he faces is Joe McCarthy, who will become Ruth’s manager in New York in 1931.
1915: Pinstripes appear on Yankees uniforms for the first time.
1957: John Kennedy becomes the first black player to appear in a game for the Philadelphia Phillies. This Phillies are the last National League team to integrate. Kennedy’s career lasts for only five games, mostly as a pinch runner. He goes hitless in two plate appearances.
1966: The Braves win their first game in Atlanta, beating the New York Mets 8-4.