Former New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu had one of the more infamous Major League Baseball careers.
After once being a hard throwing and dominant starter in Japan, Irabu never replicated it overseas.
Even though he was part of multiple World Series teams with the Yankees, he was never able to consistently perform on the biggest stages.
This opened him to severe criticism from fans, media, and even Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
That ended up turning Irabu into one of sports’ saddest stories.
— SI MLB (@si_mlb) August 2, 2017
His failures on the field were picked on constantly, driving him down a road of destructive behavior.
This led to his suicide in 2011, as he never found a proper place for himself in the world.
Here is the devastating story of Irabu’s career, and a look into the impact a sport can have on a professional athlete.
A Japanese Superstar
Irabu entered the professional Japan Pacific League in 1989 when he was just 19 years old.
At over seven years younger than his competition, Irabu posted a stellar 3.89 ERA in 14 games.
This was the start of a nine-year Japanese career that saw him rise to the top of the league.
During his age 26 season, the right-hander posted a dominant 2.53 ERA while sporting an overpowering fastball.
Despite his successes, Irabu still had a shaky relationship with the media.
He was criticized for his Japanese-American background, something that was not looked fondly upon in Japan at the time.
Regardless, he continued to perform on the mound.
His 12-6 record with a 2.40 in the next season made him a very interesting candidate to make the trip to the United States.
Following the 1996 season, Irabu’s contract was purchased by the San Diego Padres.
However, after refusing to sign with the Padres, Irabu’s rights were then traded to the Yankees in a large package deal involving three other players and $3 million.
On this day in 1997, the San Diego Padres acquired the rights to 27-year-old Japanese hard-throwing pitcher Hideki Irabu. However, Irabu only wanted to play for the New York Yankees and would force a trade to the Bronx
— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) January 13, 2021
The sloppiness of the deal led to the establishment of the posting system, leading to the bidding wars among MLB teams seen today.
When the dust finally settled, Irabu signed a four-year $12.8 million contract to join the defending champion Yankees.
Massive Expectations For Irabu
Irabu entered MLB with major expectations surrounding him.
Nicknames like “the Japanese Nolan Ryan” or the “Japanese Roger Clemens” set a high bar for him, even before throwing a big-league pitch.
The Yankees, known for their ruthless fans, were also coming off a World Series championship expecting more.
Irabu started his career making six starts in the minors, sporting a standout 2.32 ERA.
He then made his major league debut on July 10, allowing just two runs in six and two-thirds innings.
However, this solid start would lead to a catastrophic downfall.
In his following starts, Irabu gave up a staggering amount of runs and ballooned his ERA to over seven.
This prompted the Yankees to send him back to the minors for more development.
When he was eventually called back up later in the season, Irabu continued to struggle.
By the end of the year, he finished 5-4 with a 7.09 ERA, a far cry from the expectations.
During these times, Irabu largely removed himself from his teammates.
Despite efforts from teammates like David Cone and David Wells, he was never approachable.
He took on a business-like mentality of showing up on gamedays to pitch and going home.
However, Irabu made some improvements in the following year.
He went 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA, posting a 109 ERA+ which meant he was above league average.
The forgotten man of 1998. Hideki Irabu.
13-9, 4.06 ERA, 1.29 WHIP pic.twitter.com/LNWr13ebXP
— Yankeesource (@YankeeSource) August 18, 2018
After a challenging first season, it appeared as though Irabu was turning a corner.
The Infamous Nickname
Just as he appeared to perhaps be taking steps forward, a quote from owner George Steinbrenner derailed his mental state.
After not covering first base during the final Spring Training game of 1999, Steinbrenner unleashed a rant against Irabu.
“He looks like a fat pu**y toad out there,” Steinbrenner said according to a 1999 New York Post article. “That’s not a Yankee.”
This insult prompted Irabu, already a social outcast in a foreign country, to ask the Yankees to leave him in Florida for the season.
Irabu still ended up playing for the Yankees in 1999, making 27 starts and finishing with a 4.84 ERA.
The damage had been done, though, and the nickname stuck with Irabu.
He even became the source of media attention, with popular shows like Seinfeld mentioning him.
One of the great Frank Costanza lines… “HOW COULD YOU GIVE TWELVE MILLION DOLLARS TO HIDEKI IRABU?!”
RIP Jerry Stiller pic.twitter.com/IrAEGgBgEN
— Henry (@HenryGob) May 11, 2020
Following the season, the Yankees traded him to the Montreal Expos where his career continued to suffer.
He played in three more seasons, posting at best a 4.86 ERA before returning to Japan in 2003.
After a solid season, a knee injury in 2004 effectively pushed him out of the game.
Irabu Post-Retirement Struggles
After retiring, Irabu battled with overeating and drinking.
He became addicted to drinking, falling deeper into a depressive state as he never became acclimated to American life.
This began changing in the late 2000s, as a chance to make a comeback pushed him on the road to recovery.
He started rehabbing the knee injury that knocked him out of the game in 2004 and lost 40 pounds.
Eventually, at 40 years old, Irabu made appearances in an independent league and pitched well.
This gave him the chance to return to Japan and play in an independent league there, which ended after just two starts and a thumb injury.
Following the end of his baseball career, Irabu returned to his home in Los Angeles where he tried to find his way.
He became increasingly isolated from the world, with his wife and two children even moving out of their home.
According to those close to Irabu, it seemed as though he was struggling with substance abuse and that he became increasingly despondent.
Baseball had given him a sense of identity, and that was now gone.
Falling deeper and deeper into depression, Irabu eventually took his own life in 2011.
The sheriff department’s search around his house found a half-empty bottle of an antidepressant and two strong anxiety pills.
On top of that, Irabu’s blood alcohol content was 0.23%.
It was a devastating and quiet end for a person that was once appeared to be the next dominant pitcher in baseball.
He never found comfort in either Japan or the U.S., causing him to feel ostracized and removed from the world.
It also serves as a reminder of the dangers that professional athletes face from fans, media, and even owners.
Hideki Irabu would have been 46 today. Remember, guys: You're never alone out there. pic.twitter.com/SXTxqe9y5J
— Pinstripe Alley (@pinstripealley) May 5, 2015