Sunday August 7, 2011
MLB reports: Hideki Irabu was born on May 5, 1969 in Hirara, Okinawa. Irabu played in Japan (Nippon Professional Baseball) from 1988-1996 and then again from 2003-2004. In North America, we will most remember Irabu as a member of the New York Yankees from 1997-1999. Irabu also played with the Montreal Expos from 2000-2001 and the Texas Rangers in 2002. The baseball world sadly lost Hideki Irabu on July 27, 2011, an apparent victim of suicide. A loss to the baseball world at the tender age of 42, Irabu was survived by a wife and two young children.
The story of Hideki Irabu is well-known in the baseball community. He had his contract purchased by the San Diego Padres from his Japanese club, the Chiba Lotte Marines. Irabu refused to sign with the San Diego Padres and stated his intention of only playing for the New York Yankees. The Yankees were able to swing a deal for Irabu’s services, for a package of players including Ruben Rivera and cash. Hideki Irabu ended up making his debut with the Yankees on July 10, 1997 and for his career pitched in 74 games for the Yankees over 3 seasons (64 starts). Irabu won back-to-back World Series rings in New York in 1998 and 1999. He was then traded to the Montreal Expos for Ted Lilly, Jake Westbrook and Christian Parker. A good haul for the Yankees considering the career spans of Lilly and Westbrook (had they stayed in New York). Irabu then signed with the Texas Rangers as a free agent and played out his last MLB season as a closer before returning to Japan to resume his NPB career. After a stint in independent baseball, Irabu apparently had the intention of returning to Major League Baseball, but alas a comeback was not in the cards. Reports have indicated that Irabu hung himself in his California home, with autopsy results to follow. Today we look at the career of Hideki Irabu and the road that led to his untimely passing this year.
When joining the New York Yankees in 1997, Hideki Irabu was labelled the “Japanese Nolan Ryan”. By the time he left New York, he was stuck with the moniker given to him by team owner George Steinbrenner “the fat toad”. Looking at Irabu’s MLB numbers, he unfortunately fell short of the Nolan Ryan comparisons:
|162 Game Avg.||11||12||5.15||5||58||134||1.405|
|NYY (3 yrs)||29||20||4.80||0||142||315||1.362|
|MON (2 yrs)||2||7||6.69||0||17||60||1.626|
|TEX (1 yr)||3||8||5.74||16||16||30||1.426|
|AL (4 yrs)||32||28||4.90||16||158||345||1.369|
|NL (2 yrs)||2||7||6.69||0||17||60||1.626|
Injuries played a part in Irabu’s MLB career. Irabu had both knee and shoulder surgeries after leaving the Yankees and blood clots ultimately led to his retirement from Major League Baseball following the 2002 season. Bouts of heavy drinking, depression and rage also factored into Irabu’s career. But despite all the distractions and factors that led to his unravelling in baseball, Irabu did show some glimpses of promise. In addition to the two world series titles he earned in New York (despite playing in only one career post season game in 1999, giving up 7 ER in 4.2 IP to the Red Sox in the ALCS), Irabu had his best numbers during his time with the Yankees. He earned both of his career shutouts in New York. His best statistical season was 1998, where he went 13-9 for the Yankees, with a 4.06 ERA and 1.295 WHIP. As a closer for the Rangers in 2002, Irabu earned 16 saves. That unfortunately went together with a 3-8 record, 5.74 ERA and 1.426 WHIP. For a proud young man who fought hard on and off the field, his major league career was taken from him much too early. Despite attempts at a comeback, we never did see Hideki Irabu in a MLB uniform again after the 2002 season.
In our society, it is much too easy to write off the passing of another human being, especially a celebrity, without considering the person behind the name. Granted Irabu faced many demons in his life and career. But I think some people feel the need to label a player like Irabu an alcoholic and rageaholic and simply write him off when learning of his passing. That is a tragedy in my estimation. When I learned of Irabu’s passing, my immediate thoughts led to Donnie Moore. For those of you not familiar, Moore was the Angels pitcher that gave up the tying and winning runs to the Red Sox in game five of the 1986 ALCS. Many critics pointed to Moore as the reason that the Red Sox ended up beating the Angels and advancing to the World Series. Moore was a popular target of Angels fans the following seasons and ended up shooting his wife and taking his own life. A tragic story in itself, Moore like Irabu suffered from deep depression. But without analyzing and comparing both men too much, I believe that it was the name calling and the reputations of each men that contributed greatly to their respective passings. Victories and failures take place on baseball diamonds each and every day. Moore in the playoffs and Irabu in New York, suffered their failures on some of the biggest baseball stages that you can find. Had their losses been forgotten and each man allowed to continue fresh, they may have enjoyed longer and productive careers in baseball. They may have also been able to enjoy their personal lives to a greater extent and still been with us today. But the stigma of failure which was likely reminded to Moore and Irabu for most of their last days on this earth, was likely too much for each to bear.
Hideki Irabu, being of Japanese descent, was a very proud man. Respect and reputation are considered very important in Japanese circles and criticism is often not taken very well. Irabu, like Ichiro Suzuki after him, had a lifelong battle with the Japanese media. Being of mixed descent, Irabu rarely discussed his background which was a difficult subject for him. Before coming to North America, the Japanese media labelled him with very strong nicknames, including the “Shuwozenegga” and “Kurage”, which translates to jellyfish, for the sting of his pitches. From there, being called the Japanese Nolan Ryan came with a set of expectations that Irabu could never live up to. If that was not bad enough, the “fat toad” comment by George Steinbrenner stuck with him to his very last days. It was my understanding that Irabu through most of his MLB career could not be in any baseball cities, especially New York without hearing some reference to the toad comment. For a proud individual that did not take criticism well, such a nickname probably stuck within him like a dagger. By no means do I directly blame Steinbrenner for Irabu’s suicide. Far from it, as Steinbrenner lately expressed remorse for his comments and publicly apologized for his remarks. But the choice of media and select fans to continue to remind Irabu of the nickname most likely helped contribute to his passing. We cannot bring Hideki Irabu or Donnie Moore back. But we can learn from their passings and help other athletes avoid similar fates.
I link the taunting of Irabu and Moore before him in public and media outlets to bullying in schools. We have read stories of children and teenagers being harassed in schools and outlets like e-mails and Facebook to the point that they are driven to taking their own lives. Words do hurt and a bully can be charged criminally. For those people that went up to Hideki Irabu in a restaurant and called him a “fat toad”, or approached Donnie Moore in a shopping mall and called him a “choke” and “failure”, think about the result of those actions in retrospect. Since athletes are in the public eye, that leads to many people feeling a sense of entitlement to judge and criticize players as they see fit. Irabu by earning over $15 million over 6 seasons in Major League Baseball, was apparently fair game as a target to all forms of criticism that people chose to throw his way. I have no issue with judging an athlete’s numbers on the field. Analysis and discussion is what sports is all about. But once we start with the name calling and viciousness, I feel that a line needs to be drawn.
Donnie Moore and Hideki Irabu chose to become professional athletes and were in the public eye. That does mean that their wins and losses will be known to millions and discussed and analyzed by many. But sports can go to extreme levels. Homes vandalized. Children harassed. Even murders. Critics and extreme “fans’ can go to dangerous levels in criticizing athletes. While extreme situations, they do take place all too often. These instances stem from bullying, which is not acceptable in schools with children but allowable in public forums with public figures. We as members of society need to draw the line of what is acceptable in reviewing and criticizing athletes. Although they choose to be in the public light, they are still human beings with real feelings and emotions. Hopefully more people will remember that the next time they hurl disparaging remarks at an athlete, whether it be in a stadium, restaurant, radio talk show or newspaper. Words do hurt and in the case of Donnie Moore and Hideki Irabu, they can also kill.
Donnie Moore, if you weren’t aware, played professional baseball for 13 seasons for 5 different teams. He had a career 3.67 ERA. His best season was 1985, where he has a 8-8 record, 1.92 ERA, 31 saves and 1.087 WHIP. He followed up the following season with 21 saves. He was an all-star in 1985, finishing 6th in A.L. MVP voting and 7th in A.L. CY Young voting. Moore also pitched two perfect innings for the Braves in the 1982 NLCS. But most people don’t remember those numbers. When they hear the name Donnie Moore, they think of the 1986 ALCS defeat and suicide. Hideki Irabu has now met a similar fate. Many people do not remember that Irabu was the man responsible for the Japanese posting system. By refusing to sign with the Padres, MLB helped institute the current posting system for Japanese players to come to North America. If not for Irabu, the entire system of transferring NPB players to MLB could be much different today. Irabu won two World Series rings and enjoyed some success in North America. Before that, Irabu enjoyed great success in Japan on the baseball diamond. But when people reflect on his passing, the main words that are spoken now are “fat toad” and suicide. Even in death, Irabu and Moore continue to be criticized and bullied. That is the saddest reality of all.
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