Hideki Irabu, a former Japanese baseball star who was hailed as a pitching sensation when he joined the Yankees in 1997 but who fell short of expectations, prompting an angry George Steinbrenner to label him indelibly as “a fat, pus-sy toad,” was found dead on Wednesday in the Los Angeles suburb where he lived. He was 42.Enlarge This Image Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
Hideki Irabu, a star in Japan, was welcomed to Yankee Stadium by George Steinbrenner, the team's principal owner, in 1997.
Lt. Fred Corral of the Coroner’s Investigative Division of Los Angeles County said Thursday that Irabu had apparently hanged himself in a home in Rancho Palos Verdes. A friend discovered the body on Wednesday afternoon, Lieutenant Corral said; it was not clear whether the home was Irabu’s, he added.
Irabu’s recent years were troubled. He pleaded guilty to assaulting a bartender in Japan in 2008 and was arrested last year on drunken driving charges in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena.
Irabu was part of an early wave of star Japanese players recruited by major league teams. When he made his highly anticipated debut for the Yankees on July 10, 1997, against the Detroit Tigers, Yankee Stadium had a postseason atmosphere. A crowd of 51,901, many wearing cone-shaped Asian-style hats, showed up, as did 300 reporters. Camera flashes popped throughout the stadium on that summer night.
In Japan, 35 million people watched the game on television. Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, said it was the most pressure he had seen on a Yankee in 25 years. That day, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had honored Irabu, who was 28, at City Hall.
The Yankees had signed him for $12.8 million for four years. It was the richest deal in history for a player who had yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues.
He had come to the Yankees with a reputation as a strikeout king in the top Japanese league, a hard thrower with excellent command of four pitches, including a fastball that had been clocked at 98 miles per hour. Originally sought by the San Diego Padres, he had said he would play in the major leagues only for the Yankees.
Irabu, who was 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, rose to the challenge in his first start, striking out nine batters in six and two-thirds innings. The Yankees won, 10-3, and the crowd erupted when Irabu, billed as the Nolan Ryan of Japan, returned to the field for a curtain call.
The night turned out to be a high point. Irabu finished the season with a 5-4 record and a 7.09 earned run average, and he was sent to the minors before the season was over. The next year he improved to 13-9 with a 4.06 E.R.A., but he had no victories in September and never got into a postseason game as the Yankees swept the Padres in the World Series.
In 1999, Steinbrenner exploded in anger after Irabu failed to cover first base in a spring exhibition game. The “fat toad” epithet was widely reported and forever associated with Irabu. Steinbrenner at first barred him from traveling with the team to Los Angeles for its final exhibition games, but later relented.
Irabu compiled an 11-7 record that year with 4.84 E.R.A. He was hit hard in his only playoff appearance, allowing seven runs in four innings of relief against Boston. The Yankees went on to beat the Atlanta Braves in the Series.
After the season, Irabu was traded to Montreal, where he pitched for two seasons before working in relief for the Texas Rangers in 2002. His record in the major leagues was 34-35.
Hideki Irabu was born on May 5, 1969, in Hyogo, Japan. The man who raised him, Ichiro Irabu, drew wide attention in 1997 when he told The New York Times in an interview that he was not Irabu’s biological father. He said his wife, Kazue, and an American whom he declined to name were Hideki’s birth parents.
Irabu started playing professional baseball in 1987, when he was the No. 1 draft pick of the Lotte Orions of Japan’s Pacific League; the team later became the Chiba Lotte Marines. Irabu pitched nine seasons for the club, compiling a 57-57 record. He led the league in strikeouts in 1995 and in E.R.A. in 1995 and 1996, with 2.53 and 2.40, respectively.
Irabu’s prowess earned him the nickname Kurage, which means jellyfish in Japanese. A rival manager coined the name when he said Irabu had stung his team like a “kurage.” The Marines sold Irabu jellyfish dolls.
The Japanese club at first resisted Irabu’s demand that it release him so that he could play in the United States, but ultimately gave the Padres exclusive negotiating rights. The Padres offered him more than $4 million for three years, but he refused, saying his heart was set on playing for the Yankees.
In his second game with the Yankees’ Class A affiliate in Tampa, Fla., he was one of the first to rush toward a brawl until he was pulled back by a teammate.
As Steinbrenner told The Detroit News, the next inning, Irabu, speaking through an interpreter, asked his manager, “Who do you want me to drill?” Steinbrenner said he liked that.
Irabu returned to Japan to pitch for the Hanshin Tigers in 2003. In California he pitched for the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden Baseball League in 2009. He also invested in Japanese restaurants in the Los Angeles area, where he lived with his wife, Kyonsu, and two children.