Hideki Irabu Got Lost on the Road Back
Hideki Irabu, center, spent little time with his Armada teammates. “To get to know him as a teammate or friend was nearly impossible,” a player said. More Photos »
It was the kind of inquiry that curious pitchers make, even ones with World Series rings. How, Hideki Irabu wanted to know, do you throw a changeup?
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Irabu, trying to make it back to the majors at 40, pitched for the Armada, an independent league team. More Photos »
Jerry Spradlin, his pitching coach on the Long Beach Armada in the spring of 2009, was all too happy to show him. A former journeyman major league reliever, he was a newcomer to coaching and was eager to share some of what he knew, even something as basic as a changeup with a pitcher once called the Nolan Ryan of Japan.
The lesson was impromptu and informal, typical of the way things were done on the Armada, an independent league team that served as a halfway house for older players making last-ditch comebacks and younger players still hoping to make it as professionals. With the help of an interpreter, Spradlin showed the grip to Irabu, who threw about 10 warm-up pitches in the bullpen before his start that day.
Even though he was 40 and a former Yankee, Irabu was an attentive student. He was also a quick study. He struck out the side in order during the first inning using his new pitch to put away the batters.
“He clearly had something left in the tank,” Spradlin said with a chuckle.
As per tradition at Armada games, the fans passed the hat to reward players for their feats. Irabu had made millions during his career and did not need the $300 that reached the dugout. Some players wanted to give it back to the fans while others thought they should split it among themselves.
Garry Templeton, the team’s manager, felt otherwise. He told Irabu where the money had come from, and without hesitation, Irabu told him it should be spent on food and beer for the team. The clubhouse attendant was dispatched to a store for provisions.
“We had a party on him,” Templeton said.
Two years later, Irabu, 42, was found hanging in his house in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., an upscale Los Angeles suburb. At some level, all suicides are mysteries. Irabu apparently left no note, but he had his troubles. He was known to drink heavily at times. His wife and two children had moved out weeks before. His two noodle restaurants had closed, and he was casting about for something else to do.
“When I saw him last summer, he told me he was having a midlife crisis,” said George Rose, who befriended Irabu when he worked for two years as his interpreter on the Yankees. Rose then repeated what had been a kind of conventional wisdom about the Irabu: he had a big heart, but could be his own worst enemy.
Irabu, for sure, had seemed to battle demons throughout his meteoric rise and fall. A No. 1 draft pick in Japan, he was best known for his record-setting fastball, and his temper off the field. Even during his best years in the mid-1990s, he had a love-hate relationship with the news media, which needled him by writing about his mixed heritage, a taboo in Japan. He called some Japanese reporters locusts. He was eager to play in the United States, but he bucked the baseball establishment by refusing to be traded to the San Diego Padres, despite their generous contract offer.
Instead, he held out until the Yankees could sign him, and he received a hero’s welcome in New York. He twice was named the American League pitcher of the month, but he faded late in seasons. His moodiness, injuries and weight problems led George Steinbrenner to call him a fat toad, a stinging tag that he could not shake.
He returned to Japan in 2003 and helped the Hanshin Tigers win the Central League pennant for the first time in nearly two decades, a redemption of sorts. But the next year, the injuries piled up and he retired after pitching in three games.
His time with the Armada in 2009, then, turned out to be Irabu’s last attempt to recapture his love of the game and to fulfill some of his unmet expectations.
But like many things Irabu did, his time on the Armada came with conditions. He was with the team only on days when he pitched, and he went to those games with a personal assistant and an interpreter. Because of his limited English, his teammates had little sense of Irabu as a person.
Some of the players, chiefly those who had never had a whiff of the major leagues, were in awe of Irabu nonetheless. But they could also be irked that Irabu kept his distance.
“To get to know him as a teammate or friend was nearly impossible,” said Scott Lonergan, a starting pitcher that year who now works as a scout with the Padres. “He didn’t come off as a prima donna. There was no sense that he was better than anyone. It was a strict business transaction. He would show up, pitch and leave.”
A Toss Leads to a Quest