The game of baseball was dealt bad news on Thursday when it was revealed that Hideki Irabu had passed away in Los Angeles at the age of 42. The LAPD reported an apparent suicide as the cause of death. Irabu arrived in the United States with the greatest of expectations after a dominating start to his professional career in his native Japan. Irabu fared better than most fans in New York will remember him by, posting a record of 29-20 in three seasons in pinstripes. His relatively high ERA (4.80) and pedestrian strikeout totals (315, only one season with more than 100) failed to live up to the perhaps unrealistically high expectations set for him. Beyond the merely average performance, fans probably were less pleased with his private and at times standoffish demeanor. He was harder to cheer for than, say, Hideki Matsui, who also arrived in the states with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Irabu's time in New York looks pretty darn good in comparison to how he pitched in Montreal ('00-'01) and Texas ('02). It was in those three seasons that he really struggled and cemented his status as a 'bust' in the big leagues. Whether or not Irabu's disappointing career in the US had anything to do with his decision to take his own life is not clear and really not important at this time.
As Jack Curry eloquently noted, Irabu could never really distance himself from one event in 1999, his final year with the Yankees:
It’s impossible to chronicle Irabu’s career without detailing an incident from what should have been a harmless exhibition game in 1999. When Irabu failed to cover first for the second straight game, it infuriated Steinbrenner and unleashed an awkward series of events around a team waiting to leave Tampa and fly to San Diego to two exhibition games.
A few minutes after Irabu’s mistake, Steinbrenner criticized the 253-pound pitcher.
"He looked like a fat, **** (rhymes with fussy) toad out there, not covering first base," Steinbrenner said. "I don’t know what you got to do. That’s not a Yankee."
Irabu, who was typically bland in interviews, raised his voice that day and said that he couldn’t understand why he was being questioned for not having "any guts" or "any fight." He lamented that he was being judged "on a play-by-play basis rather than my overall play."
For as passionate as Yankees fans, perhaps Irabu's tragic passing is a subtle reminder that there are fragile psyches who must endure the vitriolic criticism that certain fans and media members are all too happy to levy against under-performing players. Condolences and prayers go out to Irabu's family and friends for their loss.