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.