It’s probably fair to say that Hideki Irabu didn’t know what he was getting into when he forced a trade away from the San Diego Padres in May of 1997. Irabu was defiant from the start when the Padres acquired the exclusive rights to negotiate with him, saying he would only play for the Yankees. Hailed as having a 100 mph fastball, and a 90 mph splitter, Irabu was called the Nolan Ryan of Japan and billed as the savior of the Yankees pitching staff when he was acquired earlier that year.
But the pitcher that showed up had trouble reaching the mid-90s with that fastball, displayed a great deal of emotional immaturity, and pitched poorly, and did so in the biggest media fishbowl this side of the Royal Family. Irabu may have wanted New York, but he wasn’t made for New York, at least right away. He might have wanted Steinbrenner, but he wasn’t ready for Steinbrenner, and the way the Boss switched between calling a player as the greatest thing since Cy Young and a “fat toad.”
So when Irabu followed up his nine strikeout debut with three straight stinkers, he was not ready when his owner, the media, and the crowd turned on him. Ultimately, he probably would have benefitted from starting his career in San Diego, where the pressure would have been less crushing.
Yankees fans never forgave Irabu for not living up to their expectations, even though he provided decent production for a backend starter in 1998 and 1999, and the Yankees won consecutive World Series. And perhaps, Irabu never forgave himself, given that his death last week has been ruled a suicide. It’s a sad end for a man who came to New York like Caesar after conquering Pompey. But for as little as Yankees fans liked Irabu, they owe him a debt of gratitude. Because, beginning with the offseason trade to the Expos in 2000, the Yankees have built a foundation of players that has helped them to remain the powerhouse of the American League. Observe:
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So as the Yankees push toward another playoff appearance this year, having wrapped up the Wild Card already, Yankees fans should keep in mind that one of the reasons they were able to do that so easily is because of Hideki Irabu.