Hideki Irabu was given a king’s welcome in New York.
He was flown to the city in Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s private jet and given the key to the city by NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Irabu’s debut in America, July 10, 1997, was a memorable event in a Yankees history filled with memorable events.
Before a weeknight audience of more than 50,000 fans, nearly one-third of whom were Japanese, and a morning television audience back in Japan of over 30 million, Irabu took the mound. Mixing a fastball in the high 150s kph, with a sharply diving forkball in the low 150s kph, he struck out nine in a 10-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers.
When he was removed from the game with two outs in the seventh inning, he was given a deafening ovation, one which lasted so loud and so long, that Irabu was pushed back onto the field by Yankees teammates for a curtain call.
It was perhaps the high point of Irabu’s career.
However, a string of bad outings followed, and he was shipped to the minor leagues for a time. He would finish the year with a disappointing mark of 5-4 and an embarrassing ERA of 7.09. It was a pattern that would repeat itself.
The next season he started off like Cy Young and by mid-season was 8-4 with an ERA of 2.47. He won the American League MLB Pitcher of the Month award for May and over the first half of the season, he was arguably the best pitcher on the Yankees, a team, which would go on to win the World Series and one which many observers adjudged to be the finest MLB squad of all time.
But then he mysteriously collapsed, finishing with a mark of 13-9 and an ERA of 4.06.
In 1999, he had a mark of 9-3 over the first four months of the year, and was voted Pitcher of the Month for July, but then he collapsed again to finish with a record of 11-7 and an ERA of 4.84.
A season low came perhaps the night of Aug. 9 in Oakland. Given an eight-run lead in the second inning, he was then pounded for six runs and eight hits and was removed from the game with two on in the fifth inning, thus failing to qualify for the official victory in the scorebook.
His failure to hold the A’s in check sent Yankees manager Joe Torre in an angry yelling fit that could be heard in the Oakland stands.
The Yankees won their division all three years Irabu was with the team, but by the end of each season, management had lost much confidence in their Japanese import, who was costing them several million dollars a year, that by the end of the year they removed him from the playoff starting rotation.
His performances brought to mind the old nursery school rhyme, “When he was good he was very, very good. But when he was bad, he was horrid.”
His yo-yo inconsistency was baffling to the Yankees brain trust. Said Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, “When he was on he was one of the best pitchers I have ever seen. But when he was off, he was one of the worst.”
Added Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, “When he was into it, he was probably the nastiest pitcher in the league. He pitched some great games for us. Unfortunately, he also pitched some bad ones.”
Some speculated that Irabu could simply not adapt emotionally to the higher level of competition in the big leagues, especially in a highly competitive organization like the Yankees, whose bombastic owner Steinbrenner demanded perfection.
Being touched by a home run on a 158-kph pitch that had been unhittable in Japan seemed to unnerve him. Afraid of lightning striking twice, he would then resort to breaking ball pitches on the corners, surrender a string of walks, and find himself with the bases loaded and no out and his confidence shaken.
Irabu was well-liked in the Yankees clubhouse, despite the language barrier, ready with a smile and an off-color remark he had learned in English to make his teammates laugh. He tried to fit in and follow the customs of American baseball.
He had joined in the first on-field brawl he had witnessed as a member of the Yankees, but because he had taken care to wrap his pitching hand in a towel, he inquired as to whether or not his teammates had thought any less of him for having done that. He was assured they had not.
He was also capable of great generosity. He supported many charities and gave expensive gifts to people working in the Yankees front office and his interpreter, George Rose. He paid off Rose’s post-graduate loans out of his first World Series check.
Irabu got special permission to have a Yankees World Series pendant reproduced, an expensive and exclusive item normally given only to family members, and presented it to one-time lawyer Jean Afterman, who had gone on to become a Yankees executive and a team lawyer.
“He was sweet,” she said. “He came to a barbecue at my house one time bringing a bottle of plum wine that he knew I liked but was hard to find. He had looked all over Little Tokyo to find it.
“He did thoughtful things like that for others that never got reported — only the other stuff made the news.”
The “other stuff” related to Irabu’s personal behavior which could be as erratic as his pitching. He had always had trouble controlling his temper, as he would freely admit.
Once after giving up a key run while pitching for the Chiba Lotte Marines, he had kicked the dugout in anger and broken a big toe.
In the United States, that temper revealed itself on more than one occasion. During one losing effort, he had spat in the direction of fans who were booing him. After another game in which he had pitched poorly, he smashed his fist into a Yankee Stadium clubhouse door.
During his first full-fledged Yankees camp, he literally destroyed a hotel room in Tampa during a drunken rage in which he had inadvertently hit his new bride, Kyonsu, a girl from Chiba whom he had married during the Lotte-San Diego contretemps.
On another occasion, in Philadelphia, he flew into a rage after a bad game and did considerable damage to the visitor’s dressing room.
Irabu also had a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and liked to drink beer, a lot of beer. By his second spring training, Irabu had ballooned to 113 kg and was in poor physical condition.
A New York writer quipped, “Hideki never met a beer can or a cigarette he didn’t like.”
After making a serious misplay in an exhibition game in Tampa, Florida — a mental lapse that Irabu later attributed to personal problems off the field -Steinbrenner who had earlier cracked that the only people he could give his Hideki Irabu T-shirts to were visually handicapped fans, famously called him a “fat pussy toad.”
Irabu was so upset at this slight that he refused to board the Yankees private plane for an away game. His agent, Don Nomura, had to fly in to help sort things out and help calm his client down.
New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica declared that Irabu was nothing but a “big baby.”
Irabu’s run-ins with the press were another problem, particularly the Japanese reporters who dogged him wherever he went. He compared them to “locusts” and called them “goldfish (expletive).”
He broke a Japanese photographer’s video camera on one occasion and on another, hit a Japanese cameraman with a pitched ball during a bullpen session, smirking in satisfaction as he did, causing headline coverage in the sports dailies back home.
Irabu had blacklisted several writers and publications who had cast him as the villain during his struggle with the Padres, including one reporter who had written that the real reason Irabu refused to sign with the National League team was because his mother was of North Korean descent and the city of San Diego, as home to a major naval base, had figured significantly in military strikes against the Northern Korean Peninsula in the past.
He took issue with the American media as well, including a New York Times reporter who had delved into Irabu’s past and uncovered his mixed-race background, Irabu having been born to an Okinawan mother and an American serviceman who had subsequently returned to the States, and then raised by his mother and a stepfather in a rough and tumble, lower class section of Osaka.
As a child, Irabu had, on occasion, been subjected to taunts over his slightly Western looks. During his time at Lotte, he had confided late one alcohol-fueled night to some sportswriters that he wanted one day to go to the U.S. and become so famous a ballplayer that his biological father could not help but notice.
That quote had been widely reprinted in the Japanese press, much to Irabu’s chagrin. After that, he had clammed up and refused to answer any more questions about his origins.
He considered such intrusions an invasion of privacy and nobody’s business but his own. Thus, when the Times story appeared, he added the reporter to his blacklist.
To some insiders, Irabu had no more of a temper than Posada or Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who have kicked their share of lockers, and was certainly far less combative than other players like, say, pitcher Carlos Zambrano. But because he was new and from far-off Japan, and had come off a highly publicized battle with baseball’s powers-that-be on both sides of the Pacific, his behavior was more scrutinized in the media, especially the Japanese-language media.
Whatever the explanation, his perceived attitude upset many image-conscious Japanese. Said a Japanese kitchen worker at Obata’s, a popular midtown Manhattan restaurant, “It’s all very embarrassing. He makes Japanese people look bad.”
Back in Japan, commentators decried his lack of dignity, while Nomura’s opinionated mother went on nationwide television to declare “Irabu is the shame of Japan.”
Irabu’s temper tantrums alternated with bouts of depression in which he would hole up in his hotel room on the road, closing himself off from the world, soothing himself with a favorite hobby, drawing pictures of the human anatomy, something he became quite good at.
During games he did not pitch, he could be seen by himself in the bullpen, a morose expression on his face.
Bobby Valentine, his former Chiba Lotte manager, remarked, “He probably was in the wrong place to begin with. What he needed was a more sheltered environment. What he needed was not a ‘show me’ mode but a ‘help me’ mode.”
By 2000, the Yankees had grown weary of his inconsistency and shipped him off to Montreal, where he underwent elbow and knee surgery. He won but two games in his two seasons there, spending most of his time in the minors, where, among other things, he was suspended for getting drunk the night before a start.
After that it was on to the Texas Rangers, where he had a brief shining spell as a late-inning relief pitcher before developing blood clots that put him in the hospital and ended his major league career in 2002.
While in America, Irabu was able to fill in the blanks in regard to his biological origins. His real father just showed up one day at Yankees camp, like Ray Liotta in “Field of Dreams,” bearing presents for Irabu’s wife and his two daughters.
He was not exactly the John Wayne figure Hideki had imagined. He stood 173 cm and was of slight build. He was living in Alaska, working in the civil service after completing his military duty.
As Hideki discovered, his father’s father had been physically big, had played semi-pro baseball and had exactly the same birthday as Hideki. That information had pleased Hideki greatly.
Hideki’s father explained, through an interpreter, how he had come to meet Hideki’s mother, Kazue. He had been a GI in Okinawa and was walking down the street outside his base when he spotted her being assaulted by a man, and he had intervened to rescue her.
They began a relationship that lasted about a year and culminated with the conception of Hideki. Scheduled for rotation back to the States, he had offered to take her with him when he went back, but she refused and said she wanted to sever relations and raise the child by herself. So he left and returned to the United States.
But he said he always thought about the woman and the child he had left behind and was wracked with guilt about not having been a proper father. He wanted to make up for it in any way he could. So the two embarked on a relationship of sorts, but one that was difficult to develop because of the language barrier, and one that Hideki did not discuss publicly.
“Hideki’s father was a nice guy,” said an acquaintance who knew them both. “I met him at the airport in Los Angeles when Hideki was flying back to Japan and he had come to see Hideki off. He was quiet, standing off by himself.
“Hideki told me later that he liked his father because he was the one of the very few people who never asked him for money. A lot of people tried to worm their way into Hideki’s life. They pretended to be his friend — some even pretended to be his father. But they just wanted his money. His real father was not like that at all.”