It was just a matter of time before Hideki Irabu and George Steinbrenner discovered what the rest of us already knew: that even under the best conditions, making the transition from the Chiba Lotte Marines to the New York Yankees would be difficult. Under the conditions that Irabu set for himself, however, it has been darned near impossible. In a display of two-facedness that would have made the late Richard M. Nixon proud, Irabu humbly stated his dream to play baseball professionally in the United States; then, when it became evident that his dream would be realized via the San Diego Padres, he and his agent, Don Nomura, suddenly changed their tune.
What Irabu had meant to say, so the story goes, was that he had dreamed of playing for the Yankees. Apparently his dream included visions of himself making outrageous demands of his prospective new employer and insisting he would not work unless those demands were met. Perhaps this is unfair of me, because I’ve never been a terrorist, but it seems that the only careers in which this type of behavior is tolerated and too often rewarded are terrorism and professional sports. I can count on one finger the number of seconds I would remain employed were I to place such demands on my employer.
Irabu’s crowning achievement came when he compared San Diego to a prison camp. I have lived in San Diego for several years, and although I have never been incarcerated, I like to think that my present living conditions are significantly better than those of a prison (unless I was in for tax evasion or embezzlement or something and got to watch TV and play golf all day).
Regardless the respective merits of San Diego and a prison camp, Irabu had made it quite clear to everyone that he had no intention of playing for anyone but the Yankees. So the Padres, not being complete idiots, cut their losses and, with the blessing of Chiba Lotte, dealt him to the Bronx Bombers for Rafael Medina, Ruben Rivera, and $3 million. The Yankees then, after lengthy negotiations, signed Irabu to a very generous long-term contract.
The general assumption was that the out-of-shape Irabu would zip through the minors and come up in time to help the Yankees defend their status as “World Champions.” And sure enough, he abused hitters at the A, AA, and AAA levels, all the while attracting more and more media and fan interest as “the next Nomo, only better.” He finally made it to the major leagues and struck out nine Detroit Tigers in his debut.
But already opponents questioned his ability, much as his own teammates had previously questioned his right to pitch for the Yankees. Mr. Steinbrenner dismissed Irabu’s detractors as jealous naysayers. Boss George claimed to lose respect for David Justice after the Indians’ slugger called the pitcher’s stuff “average.” Meanwhile, the hefty hurler continued his downward spiral, each start worse than the one previous.
The Yankees then decided his mechanics needed to be fixed, so they sent him back to the minors for a couple starts. Again, he pitched well.
When Irabu returned to New York, he arrived with Yankee minor league pitching instructor Billy Connors, who would serve as a sort of personal coach. Irabu, mechanics allegedly fixed, took the mound again with the same approach as before his demotion and the same predictable results: Fall behind in the count with the forkball, leave the fastball (92 MPH, rather than the 99 MPH he had allegedly been clocked at in Japan) out over the plate, look out for falling objects.
After a start at Oakland, in which Irabu faced a less-than-formidable lineup and allowed three homers in three plus innings, manager Joe Torre called his performance unacceptable in the context of a pennant race. Torre gave him one more start, this time against the lowly Philadelphia Phillies. Irabu never made it out of the fourth inning. Steinbrenner, who had been sitting in the front row to watch his prize pitcher ignite yet another bonfire at the expense of a possible return to the World Series, left the stadium soon after Irabu left the playing field and later blasted him, calling him, as Brian Hunter and David Justice had before, overhyped and suggesting that he needed to learn how to pitch and stop blaming everyone and everything else for his own personal failures. Irabu, meanwhile, declined to speak with reporters, choosing instead to spend some quality time with breakable objects in the visitor’s clubhouse.
The jury is still very much out on Hideki Irabu. Forty-something innings aren’t nearly enough to make a sound judgment on his status as a major league pitcher. But the early returns are, to put it delicately, less than favorable. Many young men have great “stuff” but possess the mental toughness of strawberry Jell-o. Irabu, with his fan-spitting, glove-throwing, clubhouse-sprinkler-breaking antics (to say nothing of his body), is resembling a considerably fouler flavor. And right now he’s probably wondering what he ever did to deserve this. And how much nicer a prison camp would be.