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Consider Hideki Irabu: Death of a Baseball Phenom (1/2)

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[Part 1 of 2]

Supposing you had an idea for a screenplay, and this is your elevator pitch: A mixed-race Japanese boy who never knew his father grows up to become a professional athlete in America. As his star rises on the field, his personal life nosedives into self-destructive behavior. The zenith of the former is concurrent with the nadir of the latter. He seeks out father-figures along the way but never can fill the hole in his heart. His childhood dream comes true, but he is never satisfied — not even when he finally meets his real father. The tragedy ends in the most Japanese way possible: suicide. Such a screenplay would never sell because it is so obviously contrived. But, as they say, God is a shameless playwright …

Wednesday, March 5, 1997

The “rights” to Hideki Irabu were “owned” by the San Diego Padres. This is a problem, as Irabu would pitch only for the Yankees of New York, as he has said many times. The Yankees will have to pay for the rights to own the Japanese player. The Padres ask for the moon: $4 million, plus a player named Shea Morenz (the Yankees #1 draft pick in ’95), plus an up-and-coming young shortstop you may have heard of: Derek Jeter. After some negotiation, the Yankees agree to a more modest proposal of lesser players and less money. A deal is struck. Much will be written and said about Hideki Irabu’s contract with the Yankees, a whopping 4-year, $12.8 million deal that is said to stir some envy in the Yankees’ locker room.

Why was Irabu so adamant about playing for the Yankees? He believed that if he played the game with the legendary team from the Bronx, the bright lights of the world’s media capital might attract the attention of his father, whom he had never met. Surely the man would come forward and seek him out.

Spring training is fine, and then a few months of minor league ball — Tampa, Columbus, Norwich — acclimate Irabu to the ways of American baseball and especially to the brilliant Klieg lights of fame, which would come soon enough.

July 10, 1997: The best day of his life.

They came to see the Japanese phenom on his first start with the New York Yankees. Because it is the team’s first game following the All-Star break, the atmosphere is like Opening Day, festive and fresh. The Stadium crammed with 51,901 fans, a crazy amount for a midseason weeknight against a mediocre opponent, the Detroit Tigers. One reporter estimates that about a third of those in attendance are Japanese. On the other side of the planet, another 30 million Japanese watch the game on television — at 7 a.m. And what a game: Irabu pitches strong into the seventh inning, striking out nine. When he is replaced, the ovation as he leaves the mound is beautiful, electric.

Irabu is embarrassed. He ducks quickly into the dugout, but his teammates shove back on the field to acknowledge the crowd’s adulation, which he does with a sheepish doff of his cap. He luxuriates in the roar and enjoys his finest hour.

In the days following the New York sports press gushes approval, while a whole fleet of foreign reporters — as many as 300 — descends on the city to cover the triumphant debut of a phenom.

July 11 …

The young phenom himself spends the days following tweaking his mechanics. He threw the ball hard, his fastball reaching the upper 90s as measured in miles per hour. Could he throw harder? It was not a matter of brute strength but form, he thought. He could eke out a little more torque if he adjusted his windup and leg kick. And his forkball too. It could be improved, somehow.

July 15 …

Irabu’s second start, against the Cleveland Indians, is another win, though the Stadium is not as electrified as in the debut.  Nor is Irabu’s fastball: he scrapes through five innings — the minimum required for a pitcher to pick up a win — and surrenders five runs, including, most ominously, three home runs. And he balks once, a symptom of uncertainty. He will spend the interim before his next start doing what he always does: working on ways to improve.

July 20 …

In Milwaukee, Irabu is dealt his first defeat at the hands of the Brewers. Though he pitches into the seventh inning, he gives up six runs. It isn’t a terrible game for the pitcher, but the shine is off the rose. He’ll work on it.

In the week following the fairytale debut, the New York Times reveals that Irabu’s long-lost father is an American G.I. Irabu had been secretive about his family — the mother who raised him and the father he never met — but now the limelight, which he hoped would draw out the man from the shadows, only serves to expose his tightly guarded privacy. Worse, in the weeks and months ahead, one pretender after another will emerge to claim paternity of the star athlete — one idiot even delivers blood and hair samples to Irabu’s agent (to no avail). Things are getting crazy. How would that affect Irabu’s performance on the field?

July 26 …

A Saturday afternoon back at the Stadium is a disaster. Irabu survives only two innings, surrendering two homers and six runs. The Yankees lose to the Brewers in Milwaukee, 9-7. Amplifying the ignominious defeat: a sellout crowd — 54,664 strong — are in attendance, many of them booing. Fans begin to question the value of the phenom.

 

A professional athlete must, above all, have the confidence to succeed. The thunderous crack! of the bat on the first of the home runs is the first assault on Irabu’s confidence. It was a quality fastball, a 98-miles-per-hour missile that had been unhittable in the Japan leagues. Here in the USA, though, the power fastball is not good enough. As doubts crept in, Irabu could not rely on the missile. Following a home run, he would nibble on the corners of the plate with breaking pitches. He would miss the strike zone, batters would walk, and frustrations would mount …

September 9 …

Big-deal sportswriter Mike Lupica writes in the Daily News that bringing Irabu into a game “is a form of surrender,” which is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words to apply to a Japanese man. He further opines that the athlete “acts like a big baby.”

September 28 …

Irabu pitches on the last day of the regular season, a meaningless game against Detroit. He throws five innings and wins. He will not pitch in the playoffs, however, where the Yankees are knocked out of the first round by Cleveland.

1998 … 

Irabu starts off the season “like Cy Young,” according to the Japan Times, in a reference to one of the greatest pitchers of all time. In May, he wins the American League Pitcher of Month, and by the All-Star break is 8-4 with a 2.47 ERA.

Then everything goes to hell. He loses games, balks incessantly, gives up home runs, and on some days, just gives up.

The knives come out. Nasty little details about Irabu’s habits find their way into the tabloids. The “overweight” pitcher smokes cigarettes — even between innings during games he pitches! He drinks beer, lots and lots of beer, which makes his weight yo-yo, somewhere between overweight and “fat.” He is said to frequent the high-end sushi bars in New York, where is known to wave his arm over the entire spread on the menu: gimme all of it.

The adversarial relationship with the press, both American and Japanese, deepens. The latter group he calls kingyo no fun (goldfish shit) because they trail him behind him in a line. They respond in kind, by referring to Irabu as wagamama (selfish) for turning his back on Japanese baseball.

Above all, Irabu is an angry young man. When a Tokyo Broadcasting System cameraman captures some of this anger, Irabu demands the tape, which he stomps to pieces. Even his teammates, such as fellow pitchers David Cone and David Wells, are subject to the volatile temper. In Chicago, the American pitchers take him out for drinks after a game. Through, through interpreter George Rose, they playfully tease Irabu about his “toughness,” which, if he had any, would get him through difficult situations on the mound. Irabu makes a scene and tears off his shirt, buttons flying everywhere. “It was explosive,” Cone would recall to Sports Illustrated. “It was like he snapped.” After the incident, they do not tease him again.

As things turn sour, Irabu turns toward religion, though his spiritual quest is haphazard, as he investigates Catholicism tinged with his more native Buddhism. He’ll telephone a Japanese monk dozens of time in a single day for guidance, or perhaps redemption.

Sports Illustrated speculates that Irabu is really seeking a father figure. His interpreter, George Rose, is only three years older than he, yet Irabu calls him senpai—elder. His agent, Don Nomura — another Japanese man who had a no-show American father — is someone Irabu wants to please and make proud. Even the ebullient (read: blowhard) owner, George Steinbrenner fills the occasional role of father-figure.

The Yankees cruise through the postseason and ultimately sweep the World Series in four games.  Irabu does not pitch a single inning in the playoffs…

COMING NEXT EDITION: PART II OF IRABU’S STORY: “Son and father meet for the first time. It doesn’t go well.”

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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