Commentary

Hideki Irabu gave us night to remember

Ex-Yank never lived up to the hype, but his first start was a classic Stadium moment

Updated: July 29, 2011, 2:33 PM ET
By Rob Parker | ESPNNewYork.com

Hideki Irabu never became what many thought he would be.

Irabu, the former New York Yankees fireballer from Japan, was found dead in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., on Wednesday. Most reports say of an apparent suicide. He was 42.

[+] EnlargeHideki Irabu
AP Photo/Bill KostrounIt didn't last, but Hideki Irabu and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner were all smiles during the Japanese fireballer's first days in pinstripes.

After the shock and sorrow wears off, some will be able to trivialize Irabu's baseball career in America. Let's not forget, he was supposed to be Nolan Ryan, just much faster. Yes, the hype was working overtime in 1997 before he made his major league debut with the Yankees.

Granted, there wasn't much of a career after his three seasons with the Yankees. But I dare anyone who was at Yankee Stadium on July 10, 1997, to say they weren't at an event, a happening.

I covered that game and wrote a column for New York Newsday. It's a moment I will never forget.

It was must-see baseball. If you think Fernandomania was huge, this was bigger than when Fernando Valenzuela came to Shea Stadium for the first time with the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was at that game, too.

In Irabu's case, there hadn't been such a buzz about a baseball player that no one had seen.

[+] EnlargeHideki Irabu Fans
AP Photo/Mark LennihanBombers fans packed the Stadium stands on July 10, 1997, not knowing what to expect from the Yanks' latest acquisition in his first MLB start.

That's why 51,901 fans, a near sellout, showed up at Yankee Stadium to see the Bronx Bombers play the terrible Detroit Tigers on a weeknight. To that point, those Yankees were averaging about 26,000 on weeknight games.

No one knew what to expect. Most waited with curiosity and anticipation to simply see him throw the ball. Was it going to be lightning speed, something we had never seen before? Was he going to strike out everybody in the lineup?

That's all you heard about -- how hard he threw and how he would change the game with his right arm.

For me, it was like seeing Allen Iverson play in person for the first time at the Garden. I wanted to see that quickness everybody in the NBA was talking about. And I was amazed.

The same thing here. Irabu, 28 at the time, didn't disappoint on this night. He brought the heat. It wasn't 100 mph, but the low 90's.

[+] EnlargeIrabu Fans
AP Photo/John DunnIrabu's nine K's got tracked not only on the Jumbotron, but by fans across the ballpark.

At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Irabu was dealing. He fanned nine of the first 19 Tigers he faced. His strikeout pitch was the split-fingered fastball. I can remember the crowd going wild after every punch out. It was a magical night in the Big Ball Orchard in the South Bronx.

Irabu pitched 6 2/3 strong innings. He allowed two runs on five hits and four walks.

Like Mets fans did for Dwight Gooden, nicknamed Dr. K when he broke into the league, fans at Yankee Stadium tracked Irabu's strikeouts with seven sets of K cards, including three in Japanese.

The crowd gave Irabu -- who fanned a total of nine on 99 pitches -- a thunderous ovation when manager Joe Torre removed him from the game in the seventh inning with no one on base. For sure, his exit was for effect, to give fans a chance to recognize him and endorse the fact that they had been a part of a special night in baseball.

Of course, the next day people started to dig deeper and dissect what they had seen. In Japanese Professional Baseball, Irabu pitched for the Lotte Orions of the Pacific League from 1988 to 1996. He was known as a high-speed pitcher. In 1993, an Irabu fastball was clocked at 158 km/h (98 mph).

[+] EnlargeIrabu Papers
AP Photo/Koji SasaharaHe'd make more negative headlines than positive ones during his Bronx tenure, but Irabu's successful debut rocked the back pages all the way to Tokyo.

Nobody saw anything close to that. Still, most left the park with the idea that Irabu had the chance to be a good major league pitcher, even if he couldn't possibly live up to the hype or the loot he got. The Yankees had signed Irabu to a four-year, $12.8 million deal.

Irabu's best season was 1998. He was 13-9 with a 4.06 ERA. Plus, he won two World Series rings with the Yankees in 1998 and 1999. He'd ultimately go 29-20 with 315 strikeouts in 395 2/3 innings as a Yankee, with a 4.80 ERA, before being traded to the Montreal Expos after the 1999 season.

Most simply remember late owner George Steinbrenner calling him a "fat toad" after he failed to cover first base on a ground ball in a spring training game. The Boss was disgusted about Irabu's weight. Steinbrenner did apologize a few days later.

Irabu even made it into Seinfeld reruns forever. You have to remember when George Costanza's father stood up in the court gallery and yelled to the fictionalized Steinbrenner on the witness stand in the final episode, "How could you spend $12 million on Hideki Irabu?"

Nobody, however, at his debut thought that. That night, indeed, was suitable for framing. That's what I'll always remember about Hideki Irabu.

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