Irabu was found dead in California yesterday from an apparent suicide.
For him to kill himself, he obviously had bigger problems than just baseball; but if his baseball career had gone according to plan, perhaps he wouldn’t have spiraled to this point.
Irabu was a prized acquisition of the Yankees in 1997 after the Padres had secured his rights from the Chiba Lotte Marines and he refused to play in San Diego. Irabu wanted to be a Yankee; the Yankees wanted him; his demands were met.
In the Times piece, it’s noted by a Yale anthropology professor—William Kelly—that Irabu may have made a mistake going to the Yankees; Kelly seems to blame agent Don Nomura:
“It may be that Nomura did not serve him well as an agent,” Kelly said. “In the end, Irabu might have been better off in San Diego.”
Blaming the agent is idiotic. If anything, Nomura was doing something that star agents like Scott Boras occasionally fail to do—serve the client as a person by acquiescing to his desires. That may not be what’s best for said client, but in the end the agent is an employee and Irabu chose to go the Yankees.
He got that and more. Which turned out to be less.
There are circumstances in which a pitcher is overvalued for the interest he’ll generate off the field rather than what he can do on it. Kei Igawa was signed by the Yankees as a response to the Red Sox getting Daisuke Matsuzaka; Irabu was the Yankees’ version of Hideo Nomo.
The expectations for Irabu were heightened by Nomo’s sudden and unforeseen explosion and the Yankees hype machine. Nomo arrived amid little fanfare aside from the way he extricated himself from Japan by “retiring”. No one predicted much and Nomo turned into a sensation; Nomo’s parents had received assurances from Dodgers GM Fred Claire and manager Tommy Lasorda that the club would protect him. Irabu had no such protective measures; all he had was the albatross of being the “second guy” after Nomo. “You think Nomo’s good? Watch this!!”
It’s not easy being the “second guy” especially playing for the Yankees under George Steinbrenner.
With a near 100-mph fastball and devastating split-finger to go along with a wild personality, the decision to lever his way to the Yankees wound up being a big part of his undoing.
Irabu was a disappointment, but he did have good stuff. That power fastball and split-finger could’ve made him a useful and probably very good big league pitcher. But the Yankees needed a Nomo and Irabu wasn’t Nomo.
Lineups were to be left in ruins at the mere sight of Irabu; the club, fans and media waited for devastation when he was merely “okay”.
Okay wasn’t, nor would it ever be, good enough when saddled with those demands for that team with that owner.
Clearly that professional failure to meet lofty and absurd fantasies were only a fraction of the myriad of issues with Hideki Irabu and those issues caused him to end his own life.