Hideki Irabu, who pitched for the Yankees from 1997-99 and was one of the first of a wave of Japanese players to come to the big leagues, was found dead in his California home on Wednesday. He was 42 years old. The death is believed to be a suicide.
Current Trenton Thunder pitcher Kei Igawa, who played with Irabu with the Hanshin Tigers in 2003, was saddened when he found out about his teammate’s passing.
“I was very surprised when I heard about it,” said Igawa through interpreter Subaru Takeshita.
“He was just one of the few guys who came back after playing in the big leagues to play in Japan. I learned a lot from him, he told me about the differences between baseball there and baseball over here. We talked about baseball a lot.”
The parallels between Irabu and Igawa are somewhat striking. Both acquired in big money deals after starring in their homeland, both disappointed under the bright lights.
Irabu, who also pitched for the Expos and Rangers after being dealt out of the Bronx, made 74 appearances for the Yankees. Despite a 29-20 record, he posted a 4.80 ERA and was unsuccessful in his lone postseason start in the 1999 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox.
Meanwhile, Igawa’s tenure with the Yankees can perhaps best be summarized by the quote Brian Cashman gave to the New York Times: “It was a disaster. We failed.”
He made just 16 big league appearances before being buried in the minors after being unwilling to accept a return to Japan, as Irabu eventually had. But before each man initially left Japan, big things were expected from both. And even upon Irabu’s return, he held hero status in his homeland.
“Obviously, when he first came to the big leagues, he held a lot of records and titles,” Igawa said.
“When he came back, he came back to a very big ballclub with the Hanshin Tigers. He was very well known and respected in Japan.”
Igawa, who is known to be somewhat reclusive and mysterious, says he did not remain in touch with Irabu once he retired for the first time following the 2003 season. Irabu did return briefly to pitch in the Golden Baseball League three seasons ago.
“Ever since he retired, I hadn’t really kept in touch with him,” Igawa said. “He’s also a lot older than I am, so it’s kind of a cultural thing. It’s hard to reach out to him.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com