It took an unusual young man to forgive one of George Steinbrenner’s ugliest insults by giving The Boss a slightly unusual birthday present a few months later. If only Hideki Irabu’s sense of humour could have saved him from the lifelong haunting that finally ended in his 2011 suicide.
In a spring 1999 exhibition game, the righthanded pitcher failed to cover first base adequately on an infield play, and Steinbrenner denounced him as a “fat, pus-sy toad.” You don’t need me to tell you how that looked in cold print with the hyphen removed.
What you didn’t know, unless you read a jarring 2017 profile by Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Reiter, is that Irabu got a little good natured revenge a few months later. He sent Steinbrenner a birthday present: a large, mechanical toad delivering a rather pronounced ribbit when you punched a button. According to Reiter, The Boss appreciated it enough to keep it in his office for the rest of his life. (Steinbrenner died a year before Irabu’s suicide.)
Twenty years before Reiter’s profile, and 23 years ago today, the Yankees made a deal with the Padres to bring Irabu to the Bronx. The Yankees thought they were getting the anomalous “Japanese Nolan Ryan,” who threw white heat in contrast to most Japanese pitchers living purely on finesse. Neither the Yankees nor anybody else thought they were getting a walking, haunted, overly self-critical and self-analytical complexity who’d end up a suicide at 42.
A pitching star in Japan who chafed at the Japanese game’s continuing reserve system, who wanted only to decide his own future after a decade pitching in the Japan Pacific League, Irabu—whose purchase by the Padres roiled other American major league teams who wanted a shot at bidding for him—stood fast in his wish to play for nobody but the Yankees.
“Hideki and his agent are free to do and say whatever they want,” said then-Padres president Larry Lucchino, “but we will march ahead at our own pace.” Irabu and his agent Don Nomura said, “Company, halt!” Then, the Padres blinked. They sent Irabu, Jackie Boxobolts, and Jerry McJerryrig to the Yankees for Richie Rinkydink, Randy Matchbox, and three million bones.
That led to the creation of the posting system that has since allowed Japanese players without the required nine years for free agency to ask their teams to post them for bidding by MLB teams. Making Irabu a kind-of Nippon Professional Baseball equivalent to Curt Flood in the American major leagues.
But Irabu isn’t remembered that way half as often as he’s remembered for being the Japanese pitching virtuoso who self-dismantled during and after tortuous Show career. Even before he became an NPB fixture, Irabu’s was a life about which “complicated” doesn’t begin to fit.
Irabu didn’t insist on becoming a Yankee solely because he knew and respected the team’s history and larger-than-life image: as Reiter revealed, he believed that if he could succeed in a Yankee uniform his father—an American Air Force meteorologist, Steve Thompson, stationed in Okinawa, who’d met and dated a Japanese waitress and learned of his son when receiving word while in Vietnam—would have to find him.
Irabu’s mother birthed and raised him in Japan and, after marrying an Osakan restauranteur, told her son he’d been sired by an American who’d only seen him once after his birth. Only decades later would Irabu learn Thompson’s letters to his mother never reached them because they’d moved onward while Thompson was still in Vietnam.
Irabu’s mixed heritage, which happened to make him larger than other children as well as giving him brown hair and rounder eyes, didn’t go over well with other Japanese children who bullied him mercilessly. To Irabu, as Reiter revealed, baseball saved him from a life in the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, “which always found a way to use large, lost young men.”
His pitching talent made him the NPB’s top pitcher by 1997 at age 28. When Irabu insisted on having a say in his own American future and out-lasted the Padres into trading him to the Yankees, the Japanese media and his Japanese teammates accused him of disrespect. That was almost nothing compared to what hit the reserved righthander whose bulk hoisted a pair of sad-looking eyes but a smile that looked as though flashing it meant he’d defied someone a little too cheerfully.
When he arrived in New York, then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani helped shove curiosity and intrigue into hyperdrive hype. Giuliani presented Irabu a Tiffany apple and called his arrival symbolic of the American immigrant experience as a whole but that experience which often began in New York itself.
Irabu probably had no clue that American politicians were at least as talented as baseball people in forging unrealistic expectation. When the pol in question was also the most unapologetically visible Yankee fan this side of George Constanza, Irabu would have had a better shot at getting away with the taking of Pelham 1-2-3—stark raving naked.
“Lay that upon the Japanese Nolan Ryan,” I wrote after Irabu’s 2011 suicide, “and anything short of a perfect game to open would have been considered a let down, if not the second coming of Pearl Harbour.”
The day after Guiliani handed him the Tiffany apple Irabu struck nine Tigers out in six-and-two-thirds. But he finished 1997, during which he had a turn in the minors, with a 7.09 ERA. The following spring he was considered “an out-of-shape bust,” as Reiter recalled it, nowhere more jarringly than in a Seinfeld series finale scene in which uber-fan Constanza bellowed, “How could you give 12 million dollars to Hideki Irabu?”
What nobody really knew was that Irabu’s surliness with the press and contrasting amiability in his clubhouse—upon his death, assorted teammates remembered his pleasantry and humour—disguised a still-young man still searching for a real home.
His battles with the Japanese press may have stemmed in part from being grilled, broiled, and basted by a press representing a home where he never felt accepted; his sense that America would never really accept him, either, was only partially thanks to the language barrier.
As a pitcher, as Reiter gleaned, Irabu was a constant self-questioner. The real source of his American lack of success probably rooted in his habit of constant change, from his exercise routines to his pitches and mechanics, even after his best outings. He also turned out to have a pronounced spiritual side, asking those few closest to him about faith and religion.
Reiter wrote that those few who were close to him knew what he really sought: a father figure and a place to belong. He thought he’d found the former in people like his agent Nomura, his translator George Rose, his fellow Yankee pitchers David Cone and David Wells, and even Steinbrenner; hence, the mechanical toad as the birthday present. The latter was even more tough. “There wasn’t a home for him,” Nomura told Reiter. “It’s almost like he was always at the visitors’ ballpark.
“There were so many different velocities—87, 89, 84, 95, 97,” Cone told Reiter about Irabu’s ability. “He was a big guy, strong, and you’d heard about the power—but it wasn’t all power. He seemed to have finesse as well . . . The day he pitched, we thought, Wow, if he’s on, he’s going to win the game for us. He could dominate an opposing lineup. That’s the way we saw him.”
Irabu was actually named the American League’s Pitcher of the Month twice, for May 1998 (he had a 1.44 ERA that month) and for July 1999. (4-0 with a 2.64 ERA.) The talent was clearly in place. (“When he was into it,” remembered longtime Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, “he threw the nastiest pitches in the league.”) It belonged to a still-young man who fought what proved an unwinnable war with himself.
Then Thompson finally sent his mother a note in spring 1999 and, after she revealed it to him, Irabu agreed to meet him. Though discovering they had much in common—including a pronounced taste for self-medicating through alcohol and a chain-smoking habit (Irabu was known to smoke half a cigarette between innings during his starts), and an equally pronounced stubbornness as children—Irabu couldn’t keep the connection.
Irabu accepted it when Thompson told him of those old, unanswered letters, but father and son couldn’t bond otherwise. A too-thick language wall, too much time past. “Irabu realized,” Reiter wrote, “that just as Thompson didn’t want anything from him, he didn’t want anything from Thompson.”
Thompson died of cancer at 81, five years after the suicide of the son he barely knew. Reiter wrote no one feeling remorse over Irabu’s suicide felt it deeper than Thompson did. His wife revealed to Reiter that he’d made and kept a photo album full of pictures of Irabu on the mound.
Two “uninspiring” seasons following a trade to the Montreal Expos, a brief comeback as a closer with the Rangers, a better comeback in the NPB a year after that, then a surprising two years’ trying in the American independent leagues, Irabu realised that baseball had given him up.
So did he. Whoever he really was.
The lawyer who worked with Nomura, Jean Afterman, told Reiter that Irabu “was fascinated by life. He was a kid philosophy major. He had a lot of questions about life. He had a lot of curiosity. He had a lot of, as we would say in this country, things to work out.”
When his professional baseball life finally ended, Reiter wrote, Irabu became obsessed with one thing despite trying a couple of businesses in southern California: baseball. He also sank further into depression, his former merely binge drinking becoming continuous and leading to a pair of unseemly arrests, as did his use of assorted antidepressants.
After his wife gathered their daughters and left him—they’d “become acculturated to American life,” the New York Times wrote, in ways he couldn’t and didn’t—Irabu seemed to lose whatever taste for life remained to him. “In the last year of his life, Irabu’s few remaining friends suspected that he was heavily medicated,” Reiter wrote.
The light had gone out of his eyes, they say. A rec-league teammate told police that Irabu had been despondent at a practice four days before his death—”I don’t want to live anymore,” he’d said—and he hadn’t been seen since the day after that. But no one thought to check on him until it was far too late.
A post-mortem search of his home turned up half a bottle of Paxil and two Ativan pills, the latter an antidepressant that’s believed tied to suicidal tendencies and even more dangerous when mixed with Irabu’s favourite self-medication, alcohol. His toxicology report showed he had three times the legal driving limit of alcohol in his system and Ativan in his liver when he hanged himself.
NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra wonders what if anything might have been different if Irabu had stayed with the Padres and not forced his trade to the Yankees despite its pioneering stature. Reiter wrote that tragedies aren’t as simple as toxicology reports, unexamined death wishes, or self-compromised talent.
They’re often deeper than even the pitcher who didn’t ask for the hype he was hit with and couldn’t live up to. The pitcher who spent his life seeking what was robbed from him originally. The pitcher who wanted one thing that the country where he grew up and first throve refused him but too much past denied him in the country he adopted.
More than anything or anyone, more than even the people who hyped him and then dismissed him when he couldn’t live up to it, he wanted and needed to know who Hideki Irabu really was.