I’m sure most people know the news by now: former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu was found dead in his home, an apparent suicide by hanging. I hadn’t heard anything about it, but a friend asked me “Where’s your Irabu piece?” and I had no idea what he was talking about. So I googled him, and I discovered the shocking news.
It’s funny: I have a few memories of watching baseball in 1998 and 1999, I was like 5 or 6 then, yet I don’t have any memory whatsoever of Hideki Irabu. Even so, this is a tragedy that really saddens me. No one wants to hear these kinds of stories. And even though I didn’t have a special connection with Irabu and never saw him play, Irabu was once a Yankee and will always be part of the Yankees family – which is my family too – so this news is very upsetting.
In his Yankees days, Irabu never lived up to the great expectations people had of him. Even so, he was a pretty influential guy, helping to break the ice for other Japanese players. Since I didn’t know much about him, I did a little research on him. I found out that it was the San Diego Padres who went after Irabu, but he refused to sign with them and only wanted to play for the Yankees. (The guy knew who was the best, gotta love it!) The Yankees eventually signed him to a 4-year, $12.8 million deal. My Dad remembered him well, so I asked him what he thought or Irabu as a pitcher. He said, “He wasn’t very spectacular, kind of a let-down, and he was a waste in the postseason. And Steinbrenner’s nickname for him wasn’t far from the truth.”
I feel like most Japanese players (who I've seen) that come to America are a little disappointing. Dice-K was a big waste of money, Akinori Iwamura and Kaz Matsui were never that great, and let’s not forget Kei Igawa of the New York Yankees – or rather, the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees. When the Red Sox signed Dice-K, the Yankees got Igawa. As much of a disappointment as Dice-K was, Igawa was 10 times worse. He could never do it in the Bigs for the Yanks. But even though he sucked, I just couldn’t hate him. He seemed like a really nice guy, and I always laughed at how he’d always be running around Yankee stadium. My family and I joked that if he didn’t make it as a pitcher, the Yanks could use him as a pinch runner!
The best Japanese players I’ve had the honor of watching are definitely Ichiro Suzuki, whose rookie card is one of my most prized cards, and Hideki Matsui, who won the 2009 World Series for my guys. These guys were legit superstars. They were even better that I expected. I think maybe I’ve held all Japanese players to standards that were just too high – Ichiro is one of the best players to have EVER played baseball in the Majors, in my mind he’s a no-doubt first ballot HOF – so is it really fair to expect all Japanese players to be like Ichiro?
It’s always exciting to hear about international signings. Even if the players don’t always live up to expectations, it’s still fun. Baseball has come such a long way, and it is truly a global game now. I hope its popularity continues to grow around the world. It’s such a wonderful game, why should it only be America’s pastime?
With the trade deadline ticking closer, I’m wondering what my Yanks will do. I heard rumors involving Hiroki Kuroda of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kuroda is one Japanese player who has had some success in the Bigs, with an ERA of 3.50 in his career here. I don’t know if I want the Yankees to trade for him, though…they already have a lot of old starters, and Kuroda, although having a nice year, is 36 years old. If they have to trade the young pitching prospects for him, I’d rather pass.
We’ll see what happens…I mean the numbers don’t lie – he’s a pretty good pitcher, so if the Yanks do trade for him, I won’t be upset.
by Virginia Califano