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Consider Hideki Irabu: Death of a Baseball Phenom (2/2)

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[Part 2 of 2]  START WITH PART 1

1968: Okinawa, Japan

American serviceman Steve Thompson, an Air Force meteorologist, is eating at a small restaurant near the military base. Another American G.I., drunk and loud, is harassing a young waitress, and so Thompson intervenes to rescue the girl. Though Thompson has a wife back in the States, he strikes up a friendship with Kazue, the waitress, and then more. After a year she is pregnant, just as Thompson is deployed to Vietnam, where he will receive the letter informing him that his son is born. He returns to Okinawa in 1970 to see the child — and he is amazed at the size of the kid. His name is Hideki-san, Kazue informs him. He looks like me, Thompson thinks. The American tries to convince Kazue to return with him to the States, though it is unclear what is to become of his marriage. She says no–she would raise the child on her own, in Japan.

Eventually, Kazue marries a Japanese man–a restaurateur–and the boy adopts his stepfather’s name and grows up in Osaka. Hideki Irabu is a large child, with roundish eyes and brownish hair, and so he is a natural target for bullies. Kazue does not tell her son his American father’s name, not for many years. But Hideki-san has a secret of his own, a dream bigger than Hollywood up. In it, he’s loved by millions around the world, he’s a true Japanese star: an American hero.

Spring Training, 1999.

The thing happens. The interpreter George Rose receives a note from a man named Steve Thompson. This one sounds legit — or anyway more credible than the slew of impostors who had already tried to claim patrimony — and so Irabu telephones his mom in Japan to confirm. Yes, she says. That’s your father.

When Irabu finally meets the man who abandoned him, he is profoundly disappointed. More accurately, he is disillusioned. Thompson could never live up to the expectations of his son’s imagination, which had concocted an illusion. The man was old and gray, dumpy and short. Irabu cannot even communicate with the man without an interpreter. What does it feel like when you finally realize your dream, but the dream turns to ashes in your hand?

April 1, 1999: The worst day of his life.

“He looks like a fat, pussy toad out there,” groused angry Yankees principal owner, George Steinbrenner. The harsh assessment followed a spring-training game in which had Irabu had failed to cover first base on a ground ball hit to the right side. Some reporters generously opined that the inexperienced first baseman, Clay Bellinger, had actually been at fault, not Irabu, but it didn’t matter: the pitcher is devastated by the insult. The loss of face, so public and damning, destroys Irabu. The toad comment was bad enough, it’s what Steinbrenner larded on top of that calumny that eviscerates the young man’s spirit: “That’s not a Yankee.”

George King of the Post writes that a “mentally shattered” Irabu “begged” the team to leave him in their minor-league camp, as traveling with the defending World Champions would be too much shame to bear under the circumstances. “While Irabu wasn’t suicidal,” King wrote, a statement that was at once inaccurate and prophetic, “he was deeply confused” and needed the coaching staff “to talk him back down.”

Irabu’s translator Rose tries to explain the odd phrase “fat pussy toad” to his charge, but the explanation makes no sense. Irabu looks up each word in an English-Japanese dictionary and ponders what sort of diabolical metaphor lurked within them: futotteiru umi kaeru.

In the days following there would be some confusion among New York City newspapers on how to spell “pussy,” which was not intended as a gendered insult but a medical one: Steinbrenner meant pussy as in pus-filled. The Post went with “pus-ie rhymes with ‘fussy'”; the Daily News fumigated the term with a hyphen, “pus-sy”; the Times did “pus-sy,” too, at first, but dropped the term altogether as the story developed legs.

For the third year in a row, Irabu starts the season strong. He is not Cy Young in the first half, but he’s pretty good.

July 4 …

Apparently, Irabu has a sense of humor. He sends a birthday gift to boss Steinbrenner — a toy mechanical toad that says “ribbit.” The old man is said to keep the memento of the “fat pussy toad” in his office for the rest of his life.

But the season spirals away from Irabu in the same way his first seasons did. He pitches brilliantly one day, then like crap the next. Although the Yankees make the playoffs in the three years Irabu is on the team (winning the World Series twice), they do not trust Irabu to pitch, excepting a single appearance in a game already given up for lost.

2000 … 

Irabu is not a Yankee in the new millennium. Instead, he is shipped to Canada, where he’ll fail with the Montreal Expos, then flail on such minor league teams as the Ottawa Lynx, Jupiter Hammerheads, and eventually, back to Japan with the Hanshin Tigers. He appears to retire from the game in 2004, but five years later, he attempts a futile comeback in California’s Golden Baseball League with something called the Long Beach Armada. That was the last of his professional baseball career.

In the end …

His final years are marked by drinking, depression, and medication. He’ll be cited for drunk driving; he’ll be arrested for assault in a barroom incident, where his legendary anger is primed by alcohol. His wife will leave him, taking his two children with her. Again he is abandoned by his family, though this time it’s nobody’s fault but his own.

In the late afternoon on Wednesday, July 27, the L.A. County sheriff find a body swinging on a half-inch white rope, lashed to a bedroom ceiling in Rancho Palos Verdes. The body — six feet, five inches and 236 pounds — is found to contain the antidepressant Paxil, the anti-anxiety drug Lorazepam, and a blood-alcohol content of 0.23%, nearly three times the legal limit in California. He had been hanging from the ceiling for “several days” according to the coroner’s report, so technically it wasn’t swinging. Just hanging there alone, facing west and looking out over the Pacific Ocean, toward home.

Mike DiPaola

Mike DiPaola is a freelance writer and photographer living in Hell's Kitchen, NYC. His articles on environmental issues, cultural preservation, and animal welfare have appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Bloomberg News, and many other publications. DiPaola is currently a columnist for High Times magazine, reporting on the emerging cannabis industry.
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1 Comment

  • Donna on October 22, 2017

    Thanks for uncovering the mystery that was Irabu’s demise which demonstrates how realizing one’s dreams often doesn’t fill the void; it’s a sad story yet serves as an excellent reminder that seeking self-validation from external sources is a dead end.

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