Pondering the passing of Hideki Irabu
Former New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu was found dead in his Southern California home last week, an apparent suicide at age 42.
Irabu’s death ended a troubled life, one complicated by abandonment, alienation and the intense scrutiny many professional athletes face when they make it big.
Robert Whiting, whose 2004 book “The Meaning of Ichiro” examined Irabu’s impact on Japanese ballplayers as well as the pitcher’s struggles in the big leagues, penned a piece for Slate that updated the premise of his earlier work.
It’s not a happy story, as one might image.
Whiting writes that Irabu was born to an Okinawan woman and an American GI, a young man who then departed Japan without leaving a forwarding address.
“Being racially mixed was not a great advantage in Japan and the difficult topic of his absent biological father was one that Irabu preferred not to discuss publicly, except to confide in one unguarded movement that he wanted one day to go to the United States and become so famous that his father could not help but notice.”
Irabu grew into a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder with a blazing fastball. He pitched in the Japanese leagues for several years, but his ultimate goal was to get to America, specifically to play for the Yankees.
After some finagling on his part, he finally got his wish in 1997. The Japanese media trailed him mercilessly, though, with many casting him as a villain for refusing to sign with the San Diego Padres, whom he’d originally been traded to by his Japanese team.
He responded by calling them a variety of unflattering nicknames such “locusts” and “goldfish shit,” according to Whiting.
Still, Irabu started auspiciously, winning his Major League debut against Detroit and earning a rousing ovation from 50,000 fans at Yankee Stadium in July 1997. But he was often erratic after that, earning the enmity of Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner, who later labeled him publicly as a “fat, pussy toad,” Whiting writes.
Whiting does an excellent job providing an inside glimpse of a troubled young man:
Irabu could be a likable young man when he was in a good mood. Cap pushed back, chewing bubble gum, and talking about his forkball, he seemed quite personable. He could also be very generous—to cite one example, he paid off most of his translator George Rose’s graduate-school loans with part of his first World Series bonus.
But Irabu was often morose and given to long fits of depression. Despite efforts by Derek Jeter, David Cone, and David Wells to help him integrate into the team, he spent much of his time alone, sitting by himself in the Yankee stadium bullpen out in right center field. On the road, he would shut himself in his hotel room poring over anatomy books, trying to understand physiology. (He liked to draw pictures of the human body and became quite skilled at it.) Still, acquaintances described Irabu as being lonely for company—if he hooked up with you for dinner one night, then he’d call you up the next and the night after to go out. It seemed that when he drank, he liked to do so in the company of others, not home alone as others might.
The Slate piece ends as sadly as it begins, relating the fact that while one of Irabu’s cherished dreams did come true, it proved bittersweet.
“The pitcher did, indeed, become famous enough that his biological father took notice. Like in some Field of Dreams scene, his father simply showed up at a game,” Whiting writes. “Father and son eventually met, but Irabu felt frustrated that he lacked the English skills to communicate effectively with his dad.”