With a blazing 98 MPH fastball, the Japanese record at the time, Irabu was labeled “The Japanese Nolan Ryan.” Pitching for the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League, he was at the top, or near the top, of the league in strikeouts, along with the lowest ERA from 1994 to 1996.
All of this made Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner want him. And Irabu wanted the Yankees too. When The San Diego Padres purchased his contract from Chiba Lotte, he refused to play for them. He would play for the Yankees- and no one else. So the Yankees and Padres worked out a trade and Steinbrenner gave him $12.8 million for four years.
And for all the hype about his fastball, it was not even the pitch that seemed to impress Yankees’ catcher Jorge Posada the most. “Hideki Irabu had a very good curve ball. Just a straight up and down, swing-and-miss curveball,” Posada said according to izquotes.com.
He was on top of the baseball world. A crowd that was nearly double the usual for week night games showed up for his debut at Yankee Stadium on July 10, 1997. He earned World Series rings in 1998 and 1999.
But his stats never matched his hype. His most productive season came in ’98, when he won 13 games with an ERA of 4.06. Rumors surfaced of his battle with alcohol. And his inability to control his weight infuriated Steinbrenner, who once referred to him as a “fat toad,” according to ESPN. .
So it was inevitable that Irabu would not last long in pinstripes. When the 1999 season concluded, he was traded to Montreal. But the change in scenery didn’t change his battle with his personal demons.
He couldn’t stick wherever he went. By 2002, after a brief time with the Expos and Rangers, he headed back to play in Japan. He was arrested there for his assault of a lounge manager in 2003. He had reportedly gulped down 20 glasses of beer.
As a last gasp at resurrecting his baseball career, he headed to California and signed a contract in the Independent Golden League. There he struck out 66 batters in 65 innings and posted a 5-3 record.
But he was arrested again in 2010 for DUI. And all of this was reportedly taking a toll on his family life. It was reported that he was depressed over the potential of losing his wife and children, according to the Japan Times.
Then on July 27, 2011, he was found hanging at his Los Angeles home, in an apparent suicide.
We idolize our sports heroes. We applaud and put them on a pedestal. But sometimes we may forget that they are human, with their own personal troubles, just as we have ours.
Hideki Irabu was never able to overcome his demons.