For the late pitcher Hideki Irabu, the surname Irabu had come from Hideki’s mother. It was her surname, and Hideki’s stepfather, Ichiro Irabu, had been a common-law husband.
Still, he treated Hideki as his own, raised him and encouraged his love for baseball. He had set up a routine of rigorous exercise to strengthen his body and his pitching arm, including a drill where he tied a rubber tube to a pole and tugged on it using his throwing motion to strengthen his arm and back muscles.
Throughout his days at Jinsei Gakuen High School in Kagawa, Hideki would awake every morning at 5:30 without fail to exercise and run.
“I was just stunned by his ability to keep up with a lot of hard work,” his stepfather said to a New York Times reporter, “Hideki would tenaciously hang onto things that a normal kid would have long given up. And that made me think that he might grow up to be an extraordinary man.”
Irabu grew up “haafu,” like his agent Don Nomura, and was subjected to the predictable childhood taunts that in turn caused many a schoolyard fight. He would turn on anyone who made a rude remark about being an “ainoko,” or half breed, hurling some insult like “bakayaro,” (idiot) and the fight would be on.
However, what bothered him more than being singled out for being mixed heritage was growing up in poverty and never having enough to eat. He said that one of the good things about being recruited to play baseball at a big-name baseball high school was being able to live in the team dormitory and feast to his heart’s content in the team cafeteria three times a day.
Meeting his biological father for the first time, in 1998, at Yankees training camp in Florida, had been another good thing. Hideki spent a week with him and that had been a positive experience, although he was frustrated at his inability to communicate with the man whose DNA he shared, without the constant presence of an interpreter, and as a result the relationship did not develop as much as he had wanted it to. But Hideki respected the man.
“He did not want anything from me except to know me and my kids,” Irabu said. “He never asked for anything.”
Upon leaving the big leagues, Irabu returned to Japan to play with the Hanshin Tigers where he experienced some success. He won 13 games in 2003 and helped the club win a Central League pennant.
He played another, less successful year, then retired to Southern California with his wife and two kids to run a moderately successful restaurant chain with an L.A.-based Japanese-American businessman. He talked of getting into Hollywood movies, as an action actor, but nothing ever materialized in that area.
“There were a lot of guys around Hideki,” said a friend. “Not all of them had his best interests at heart. But his business partner did and Hideki was pretty careful with his money.”
In 2009, he tried a comeback in the independent Golden Baseball League, signing a contract with the Long Beach Armada and posting a mark of 5-3 with a 3.58 ERA.
In August of that year, he had been introduced as a member of the Kochi Fighting Dogs, a team in one of Japan’s new independent leagues, but injuries kept him on the sidelines. And trouble dogged him.
Irabu liked to drink. He liked to go out to nightclubs and cavort with bar hostesses. He had Japanese bar hostess drinking friends in L.A., Hawaii, Tokyo and Osaka. And whenever he was in town he would be on the phone to them setting up an evening of wine, women and song.
But he tended to overdo it. There had been an incident at a girls bar in Osaka in 2009 where he had consumed 20 mugs of beer and grew obstreperous when the proprietor refused to accept his credit card.
“Do you know who I am?” he reportedly said. “I can buy up a place like this with ease. Tell me that you know the world famous Irabu!”
Police arrested him for assault.
In March 2011, he was arrested for drunk driving in Los Angeles, and was sentenced to court counseling. He quit drinking for a time and coached in a youth league, but, according to one acquaintance, it bothered him to see young players with little or no ability working so hard in practice.
“It’s pointless,” he was quoted as saying, “Either you have natural-born talent like I do or you don’t. And no amount of practice will give it to you.”
During his final year, Hideki reportedly fell into a depression. He complained of being lonely, of having fewer friends than before. He told one visitor, “I have no idea what to do with myself when I get up in the morning.”
Nikkan Sports reported that he called his former Hanshin manager, Senichi Hoshino, in the middle of the night Japan time from Los Angeles, and broke down in tears.
“I want to come back to Japan,” he said and begged Hoshino for help in finding a job as a coach. But a job was not forthcoming.
In 2011, he gave an interview to a Japanese magazine in which he said, “I want to go back to Japan. I can’t speak English. I don’t belong here.”
His wife, however, wanted to stay in L.A. She wanted their two children to grow up “international.”
Irabu was the only one in his family who could not speak English well.
Irabu and his wife, Kyonsu, had wed in 1997 in what could be described as an arranged marriage. Kyonsu had come from Chiba, home of the Chiba Lotte Marines. She was an ethnic North Korean with a Japanese passport.
Her father was a wealthy pachinko operator in Chiba who enjoyed a strong relationship with the local bank, Chiba Bank, where Kyonsu had been employed as a teller. The bank also had a strong relationship with Lotte.
According to sources, the marriage between Irabu and Kyonsu had been “arranged” by Lotte and Chiba Bank, while Hideki was still awaiting a decision on his struggle with Lotte and the San Diego Padres.
Kyonsu was described as “serious” and a “good wife,” who always took care to see that her husband ate the right foods, like “genmai” (brown rice). But after the children came, she devoted more and more of her attention to being a good mother, and spent more time with a group of Koreans and Korean-Japanese living in the L.A. area.
Said a family friend, “She really took good care of him. She let him do anything he wanted. If he wanted to go out with his friends, she would just say, ‘Fine, and what time are you coming back?’
“After he retired from baseball, she didn’t bother him about getting a job like some wives would. And she came from a very wealthy family. She didn’t need Hideki’s money. You didn’t see her all dressed up and out there trying to impress the other wives. She wouldn’t leave him without a good reason . . .”
However, she reportedly had grown weary of dealing with her husband’s erratic behavior and his inability to control his addiction to alcohol. And so in the spring of 2011, she packed and left, taking the two children with her.
Some people called it a mid-life crisis. Others said it was more than that — the death of hope. No more family. No more baseball. Fewer and fewer friends.
Still others saw the root of Irabu’s troubles was a lack of identity and psychological grounding. (Said one close friend, “He never was able to figure out who he was.”) Some suspected a chemical imbalance or bipolar disorder. Still, mental illness was a touchy subject for a professional athlete, especially one from Japan where psychiatry was not as developed as in other countries. Thus no one thought to recommend psychiatric treatment for Irabu.
Irabu’s final interview with a journalist took place in mid-July and was published a couple of weeks later in the popular magazine Shukan Shincho. The interviewer said that Irabu told him he had lost 20 kg, a result, some thought, of having quit drinking, but he was quoted as telling the interviewer he was sick.
But he did not elaborate on the nature of his illness, whether it was physical or mental.
He also said that divorce was imminent and that he was very lonely. A week later, he hanged himself in his garage.
Irabu was a complex man. He could be fun to be with. He liked karaoke. He could laugh at his own short temper and his other eccentricities.
(For instance, for him, a trip to the dentist was sheer terror. He had to be put under anesthesia. Once a dentist had accidentally dropped a tiny implant that had slipped down Irabu’s throat and became lodged in his lung. He spent six hours in the hospital.)
And he could be quite thoughtful and unfailingly generous.
Said a longtime acquaintance, “He treated his employees and friends to dinner often and he made sure they had a good time. ‘Have you had enough to eat?’ he would ask. ‘How about trying this?’ He would sit there and wait until everyone was satisfied.
“When Hideo Nomo took his friends out by contrast, Nomo would finish eating ahead of everyone else and then it was time to go, whether anyone else was ready to leave or not. Hideki was a really, really nice guy that way.”
He had a tattoo of a dragon on his back and shoulder which he believed gave him power. He had his own god, a dragon god he called “Ryujin” whom he prayed to and whom he paid tribute to with an assortment of dragon statues, statuettes and figurines that he kept in his home.
If someone he disliked met with some misfortune, Irabu would tell friends that the misfortune had been the doing of “Ryujin.”
But, sadly, he had demons that neither he nor his dragon god could conquer. On the morning of July 27, 2011, an acquaintance stopped by to check in on Hideki and found a gruesome scene: Hideki hanging from a rope in his garage. He had been dead for three days. The odor was overwhelming.
His agent and friend, Don Nomura, could not believe Irabu was gone.
“I had talked to him a month earlier and we made plans to meet that weekend for dinner,” Nomura said. “We talked about the good old days and how he changed baseball. He seemed upbeat to me. And frankly, I couldn’t see any reason for him doing what he did.
“He said he and his wife had agreed to get back together and give it another go after the end of summer vacation. He seemed to be enjoying life. He had no money problems. He had a nice house. He had reapplied for his green card. He was teaching young kids. I was going to hook him up with an independent league as a coach. I was going to arrange some speaking engagements for him.
He said, ‘Do you think people will really be interested in what I have to say?’ Hell yes, I said. He had those Yankee experiences to talk about . . .
“He was upbeat,” Nomura said. “So everything just puzzled me. I believe what he did was a spur-of-the-moment thing. An accident maybe. I believe he was drinking alone and one thing led to another and that was it. I don’t believe he knew what he was doing. It didn’t make any sense, otherwise.
“Hideki was a very precise, orderly person, who planned his moves. If he was really going to kill himself, he would have cleaned his house and then left a note. But he didn’t.”
At his best Hideki Irabu was arguably as good as any pitcher who ever lived. No matter how bad he looked at times, he could always lay claim to the fact that for a two- or three-month stretch in 1998, he was the best pitcher on what many baseball historians consider the best team there ever was. That was saying something.
Moreover, in New York, he was also the first MLB player ever to use magnets. Before each game, he had 50 tiny round magnets attached to his back, shoulders and head.
Later he added a magnetic wrist bracelet, which today has become a trend among MLB players. The intended purpose was the creation of negative ions to improve blood flow, calm nerves, decrease aches and pains.
But what history will remember Irabu best for was his having championed player rights by refusing to accept the Lotte trade to San Diego and attracting so much media attention to the deal. Because of his willingness to fight the trade to the Padres, no player will ever again have to go through what he did.
Trades like the Lotte-San Diego deal just don’t happen anymore. Or as Nomura put it, “he was buoyed by the idea that history was different because of him.”
“Life was easiest for Hideki when he was throwing a baseball,” said his one-time attorney Jean Afterman. “. . . On the mound, he was in control. The hard thing for him was the rest. Being mixed race, growing up not knowing his father, working under autocratic NPB rules, battling Lotte and San Diego, fighting the urge to drink and smoke. Not being able to play baseball anymore and finally, being alone. He was a fighter but that was too much for him to take on.”
“I was honored to work with him,” said Nomura. “It was sad to see him go. I still can’t believe he is gone. He did more than what people think he did. He was a target of the press and I know that hurt him a lot.
“I just hope that people come to appreciate what a contribution he made. The media has got to give him some credit. They made money by writing about him while he was playing. Criticizing him usually.
“I think they should contribute something to his legacy in return. I think they should change the name of the posting system to the Irabu System, in his honor.”
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