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The Tragedy of Hideki Irabu

Our condolences go out to the loved ones of Hideki Irabu. It is, of course, sad when anyone takes their own life, but the real hurt here is that it turns out that Irabu was human and felt pain. Younger readers might not recall just how much hostility there was to the pitcher once the Yankees opened up the box from Japan they had gone to great energy and expense to get, only to find out that they had not received the Walter Johnson of the East (or "The Nolan Ryan of Japan," as he was sometimes called) but just another pitcher, one not in great shape and whose stuff and command came and went and left him one of the easiest pitchers to homer off of in the game.

The owner called him a "fat [redacted] toad" when he failed to cover first base in an exhibition game, while fans coined the appellation "I-Rob-You" to mock the small return on his large salary. Irabu couldn’t communicate, so there was no way to know how he felt about these things, how hard he was trying. George Steinbrenner’s "toad" was cruel but dead on in the sense that Irabu appeared to just sit there like a frog on a log, but who knows what turmoil was at work within the man? He was under tremendous pressure, having been the subject of an international bidding war, a high-profile trade to the Yankees, a huge contract unjustified by major-league experience, and the attention of two nations.

Given the disappointment that surrounded him, it is easy to forget that he opened the classic 1998 season pitching exactly the way that had been expected. He made 10 quality starts in his first 11 appearances and hit mid-June with a 1.68 ERA in 75 innings. He had several good starts after that point, but he was more often thrashed, and his ERA over the rest of the season was 5.88. Only seven of his last 17 starts were quality, which seemed dreadfully disappointing at the time. Only in retrospect does the outrage seem out of proportion. After all, 7 of 17 is about the same rate that A.J. Burnett has had over the last season and a half and no one is calling him names.

The Yankees gave up Ruben Rivera, Rafael Medina, and $3,000,000 greenback dollars to get Irabu, also receiving Homer Bush and a minor-league outfielder in the deal. They were subsequently relieved of him by the Montreal Expos in a spectacularly lopsided trade that was the first under then-owner Jeffrey Loria, the Yankees getting Ted Lilly, Jake Westbrook, and Christian Parker in the deal. Not long after arriving in his third baseball nation, Irabu was found to require surgery to remove bone chips and spurs from his elbow. He never did get his career going again, either because of the surgery, his general lack of conditioning, or what seems to have been a drinking problem—he was found drunk before a Triple-A rehab start and was released by the Expos, and there were other alcohol-related incidents after the end of his career.

The tragedy of Irabu’s disappointing New York sojourn was that it wasn’t necessary. The Yankees, defending champions, had opened the season with a rotation of David Cone, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Dwight Gooden, and Kenny Rogers, with spot starts by Ramiro Mendoza and for most teams that would have sufficed. Irabu was acquired on May 29, a time at which the Yankees were only 29-25 and 7.5 games out, mostly due to bad luck and poor defense—they were actually hitting and pitching well and would soon start winning consistently; the losses had been coming out of the bullpen and were helped along by a disastrous second base situation. While there was not a lot of pitching dealt at the deadline that year—the best was probably Wilson Alvarez—had the team still been in possession of its top prospects it might have been able to make something happen with a known quantity. Instead, they tried to jump the line and everyone got burned, Yankees and pitcher alike.

It’s easy to say this, and we have no way of really knowing, but things might have worked out better for everyone if the deal never had happened. You can’t draw a line from 1997 to Irabu’s demise—suicide is not so easily reducible, but it is tempting to wonder if he would still be around if his life had taken a different path than the one that led to the Bronx.