Hideki Irabu and the struggles of Asian ballplayers

Irabu’s fate as a ballplayer was mostly sealed the minute he decided to come to America having earned the moniker of “Japan’s Nolan Ryan.” Additionally, he refused to report to the Padres when they secured his rights, stating he would only play for the Yankees, and forced his way to New York. Irabu’s first start drew a crowd of over 50,000 at Yankee Stadium and Irabu pitched well, exiting to a standing ovation from the crowd.

That was basically the high point of Irabu’s career, however, and it wasn’t long before Irabu was a pariah in New York. He didn’t get along with the media or teammates, he frustrated the organization with his lack of hustle and conditioning, and things finally came to a head when George Steinbrenner publicly called him a “fat pussy toad.” Irabu was shipped to Montreal and then wound up in Texas before his career ended with a whimper, a classic tale of failing to meet some ridiculously outsized expectations.

Perhaps I’m weird, but death, especially unexpected death, always makes me focus on the people around the deceased and what effects it might have on the living than on the departed themselves. And with Irabu’s death, and looking back on his career in America, I can’t help but wonder about other Asian players in Major League Baseball, and what they’re going through. I don’t think many fans truly appreciate the difficulties these guys face. They’re coming from a drastically different culture to a place where they don’t know anyone, and speak a language that bears no particular resemblance to English, and generally can’t learn more than very basic English. In many cases, they probably don’t encounter anyone who knows their language other than their interpreter.

I have to imagine it’s a very isolated social state, and it has to take on the psyche at some point. Perhaps it’s easier for an Ichiro or a Hideki Matsui, who have immediate and sustained success and become fan and player favorites, but those are obviously the exceptions to the rule. Ichiro might well be the player in Mariners’ history, and Matsui was so popular in New York he actually got applause from the crowd last weekend when he hit an important home run for the visiting team. For a less important player who doesn’t get that acclaim, or for a player like Irabu or Daisuke Matsusaka, who fail to meet expectations and are generally loathed, it has to be downright torturous.

I don’t know what to make of this is in the grander scheme of things, because it’s not really as though criticism of Irabu wasn’t warranted (although I do think it was at times colored by cultural blindness and an inability to empathize with Asian players), and if Irabu was truly depressed, it would have ultimately been something else that troubled him so.

But really, were his sins that bad? Yes, he underperformed relative to what was expected of him. Yes, he earned more money than he probably deserved to from a Major League Baseball team. He’s hardly the first person we can say that about, and I’m sure we could find plenty of Tom, Dick, and Harrys out there to say the same about. But Irabu never killed anyone or anything. He never caused a fan in the stands to lose their jobs. Perhaps he caused you to have a bad night with a poor start, but life goes on, and baseball was there the next day to make up for it. But ultimately Irabu was mostly a victim of our own short-sightedness with respect to the potential of Asian players, and the difference that would come from moving from Japan to America.

But then Irabu became a guy who could scarcely see his name in print without the words “fat toad” occupying the same season. And yesterday he became a guy who decided dying was better than living, and leaves behind a grieving family and friends who will be haunted forever, wondering if there wasn’t some sign they missed, something they could have done differently to help their loved one and avoid this tragic outcome. And even now, I can’t hear the words “Hideki Irabu” without think “fat toad.”

Hopefully Irabu has at least found a way to finally shed his unfortunate nickname.

13 thoughts on “Hideki Irabu and the struggles of Asian ballplayers

  1. DPR

    Even though the fans and the media weren't exactly courteous to him, despite a respectable first season (esp. considering advanced stats weren't as popular back then), if I recall correctly, I don't remember him badmouthing people or retaliate in any way. He showed up for work everyday, and no matter how bad his day was, he showed up for work the next day too. He had a dream and chose to pursue it, instead of letting it die like many of us. Isn't it better to tried to live your dream and failed than to never tried to achieve your dream at all? (Given that his dream is perfectly normal) It is a sad story and even sadder reaction by some fans out there. On a side note, the story kinda makes me support the "Bring Kei Igawa up" idea even more. Even for one start, let Kei pitch in a major league game. Reward him for his professional attitude and his perseverance.

    • BrienJackson

      I would very much like to see Igawa start a meaningless game at the end of the season, but I have a feeling he wouldn't get the warmest of receptions from the crowd.

    • Patrick

      Yeah…. no thanks I'll pass on Igawa. Dude can't locate for shit and doesn't have the velocity to make up for it. Letting him start at the expense of the team because he's "professional" is ridiculous. I understand it's tough coming to a foreign country to get paid millions of dollars to play a game all day long, but there are plenty of other dudes doing the same exact thing (while not getting paid millions) who work just as hard as Igawa.

      • BrienJackson

        Well the idea is that you let him start once the playoff/division race is over so winning and losing wouldn't have any marginal impact at all.

        • Patrick

          I don't understand what the reason for doing it though is. Maybe I'm just a heartless prick, but there's no sentimental factor, he's not a great pitcher, and he was a huge waste of money. So they let him pitch a meaningless game for fun? I don't know, just seems silly to me.

          • DPR

            The guy's been working hard in the minors for years, and he is still training hard, working hard, even if he knows that there's no chance of him playing in the majors. You are certainly close to a heartless prick if you can't appreciate someone working hard at his job because he loves his work. He's in a foreign country, full of foreign (and on occasions, hostile) people, and he's been judged unfairly based on a short stint of which his pitching style was changed by Guidry and others. Knowing that you aren't getting a promotion and working hard? That's really something.

          • BrienJackson

            Moreover, the fact that he's overpaid isn't his fault, it's the fault of the front office that evaluated him and offered him the money. But like you said, by all accounts the guy comes in and works hard every single day, even though he knows he's going nowhere and could easily dog it and collect his checks. I don't see anything wrong with giving him one start in a meaningless game as a reward for at least trying to earn the money.

          • Patrick

            Like I said, he's not the only one working hard.

          • jay_robertson

            Why not let him pitch? We had an outfielder pitch a couple games last month; we trot out AJ every 5 days. I've always found it hard to understand how the "Pitcher of the Year" in AAA, while playing at Scranton, could have absolutely nothing to offer the Yankees. At least he shows up – that's better than Pavano, or Brown, or a lot of other overpaid failures.

            Brien – maybe another way to get some insight into the cultural disconnect is the movie, "Lost in Translation." It is going the other way – Bill Murray, all alone in Japan. That movie alone was enough to talk me out of ever visiting the Orient. And goes a long way to explaining why US troops stationed over there stay on and around their bases. But at least they have each other. I would think the life of any Japanese import ballplayer would be incredibly tough; to be called out as a fat toad by one's boss – obviously, an order of magnitude worse.

            Hoping he's free of his demons. I feel for the man. I can forget the pitcher – and keep the two separate.

  2. Roidsox

    Well written post Brien. I recently watched a documentary on Shin-Soo Choo, and i could never imagine the struggles and difficulties these foreign players face when they arrive to Major Leagues, especially for Irabu in particular b/c he had such a high expectation to repeat what Hideo Nomo did in the big leagues. Rest in Peace Mr. Irabu.

  3. Frank S.

    And doesn't the now sainted GMSIII deserve some of the blame for tagging Irabu with the F-P-T moniker in the first place? The sanitization of the GMSIII era by the club and Al-Yankzeera (to borrow Mushnick's spot-on phrase) and the brainwashing of the fanbase in this respect is so thorough and complete that even many of the fans who lived through it are starting to buy it. Steinbrenner was a jerk. He spent money, yes. He wanted to win, yes. But he always went about it the wrong way. The dynasty never would have happened if he hadn't been suspended a second time. And while he was kind-hearted towards people in hard times (partly because he liked to play the hero), he was mean and petty in good times. Irabu is a case in point.

  4. Frank S.

    And tell me again how a man who was TWICE suspended from the game for illegal acts gets into the HOF, but Rose doesn't? If they put him in, it will be a sham. And the giant monument/photo in the bleachers was fine last year, but this year is one year too much, and if it is up again next year, that will be ridiculous. Contrary again to Al-Yankzeera fueled popular belief, GMSIII didn't build the new Yankee Stadium — the people of the City of New York did.

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