He was supposed to be the next Hideo Nomo, only bigger and better with a fastball that rivaled the best in the major leagues and earned him the label of "The Nolan Ryan of Japan."
Instead, Hideki Irabu became a joke, stuck with an unfortunate nickname courtesy of one of George Steinbrenner's childish piques. As we learn of Irabu's death at his home in California -- an apparent suicide -- what's forgotten in his troubled life and disappointing big league career is that he was a key member of the one of the great teams of all time, the 1998 Yankees.
Irabu had been a star in Japan, leading the Pacific League in ERA and strikeouts in 1995 and 1996, leading Bobby Valentine to compare him to Nolan Ryan and Irabu to bolt for the U.S. The Padres won his rights, but Irabu said he only wanted to play for the Yankees. A trade was finally worked out, Irabu eventually signed with the Yankees and made his debut on July 10 against the Tigers at Yankee Stadium. Over 51,000 packed Yankee Stadium -- one of the Yankees' biggest totals of the season -- and Irabu was electric, striking out nine and getting the win. But it went downhill from there. He finished 5-4, but with a 7.09 ERA and 15 home runs allowed in just 53 innings. The Nolan Ryan comparisons ceased to exist. Steinbrenner called him a Fat Toad.
By spring training of 1998, Yankee players were tired of Irabu's act, his temper and his frequent flare-ups with the media. "This can't go on," David Cone said at the time. "This is something that has to be talked about. It transcends baseball-media relations. It's about common decency, common workplace behavior. Irabu has to understand the media has a job to do, and we have to make ourselves available. At least that's the way it's done here. "
But Irabu righted himself and had a good 1998, going 13-9 with a 4.06 ERA, better than the AL average and better than teammate Andy Pettitte. Manager Joe Torre didn't have a lot of faith in Irabu, however, and he didn't pitch in the postseason as the Yankees rolled to the World Series, ironically beating the Padres. After going 11-7, 4.84 in 1999, the Yankees had also grown tired of Irabu's act and traded him to the Expos. It was actually a steal for the Yankees as they acquired Jake Westbrook and Ted Lilly.
Irabu got fat. He drank too much. He had knee and elbow surgery. The Expos suspended him while on a rehab assignment in Triple-A. After an ill-fated attempt by the Rangers to make him their closer, his career was over. He made millions pitching for the Yankees, but you wonder if he'd still be alive if he'd never left Japan.