Irabu and Me

Former Padres right-hander Hideki Irabu was found dead on Wednesday in a home in Rancho Palos Verdes, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. His death is being called an “apparent suicide.”

Irabu never pitched for the Padres, of course, and that is why this blog exists today. When the Padres secured his rights from NPB’s Chiba Lotte Marines, he and his agent, Don Nomura, refused to sign with San Diego, comparing the city to a “prison camp.” I took great offense and fired off a little rant that launched Ducksnorts.

That was September 1997. Derrek Lee still played for the Padres.

Billed as the Japanese Nolan Ryan and later called a “Fad Toad” by former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for his failure to live up to said billing, Irabu posted numbers in North American that more closely resembled those of, say, Geremi Gonzalez. If you don’t remember Gonzalez, you’re not alone. He finished 5,360 strikeouts shy of Ryan’s career total… and 51 shy of Irabu’s.

I’ve written before that Irabu is one of two baseball players I have booed as an adult (Bobby Chouinard is the other… search for “bobby chouinard christmas” on your engine of choice to find out why). The game took place in Oakland, on August 27, 1997. Former Padres shortstop Miguel Tejada made his big-league debut that night and went 0-for-5. Former Padres Dave Magadan and Matt Stairs homered off Irabu.

I booed everything Irabu did and cheered every bad outcome. This isn’t something I’m proud of, incidentally — reveling in another’s failure — but when a guy disses my city, I take umbrage. I’m sensitive that way. (A Japanese couple in front of me thought I was completely insane… they may have been right.)

A third home run, by Ernie Young, drove Irabu from the game in the fourth inning. Left-hander Kenny Rogers replaced him.

Rogers had been traded, along with Mariano Duncan, to the Padres for Greg Vaughn a month earlier, but Steinbrenner backed out at the last moment due to concerns about the health of Vaughn’s surgically repaired right shoulder. (I was at what was presumed to be Vaughn’s last game in a Padres uniform. He homered and gave everyone on the bench a hug.) Vaughn went on to help lead the Padres to their second ever World Series a year later, against Irabu’s Yankees.

Irabu himself ended up playing a pivotal role for the ’98 Padres as well. When they traded his rights to the Yankees, the Padres received Ruben Rivera and Rafael Medina in return. Rivera went on to become the worst baserunner ever, while Medina became part of the package (along with the aforementioned Lee) that brought right-hander Kevin Brown to San Diego from the defending champion Florida Marlins.

The 1998 World Series appearance played a huge role in securing funds for Petco Park. It is a stretch to hold Irabu (who begat Medina, who begat Brown) responsible for his would-be team’s move downtown (there were many other factors, including the continued presence of Vaughn), but he was a part of the puzzle.

(On a grander scale, Irabu’s refusal to play for the Padres also paved the way for the posting system, which allowed Steinbrenner to overpay for Kei Igawa some years later.)

The other way in which Irabu and I are connected hits a little closer to home in the wake of his death. Sources are mixed on his birthday. Some list it as May 15, 1969. Others list it as May 5, 1969. The latter also happens to be my birthday, and I’ve taken to calling Irabu my “evil twin” over the years.

Yes, it’s stupid. I realize that.

The point is, I have felt a strange connection with Irabu despite never meeting him. Much of that connection resulted from my hating his dismissal of a city I have come to love in my quarter-century here since moving south from Los Angeles, but whatever.

Now Irabu is dead, apparently by his own hand. It all seems like such a waste. Of talent? Sure, but more than that, a waste of life.

The man was clearly troubled by something. I have no doubt that Irabu did the best he could with his time on Earth, and it’s tragic that his best wasn’t very good. But I can’t just boo the guy for dismissing a planet I have come to love in my 42 years here.

All I can do is feel profoundly sad and maybe take comfort in knowing that whatever plagued Irabu in his life isn’t plaguing him anymore. That is the best I can do right now, even if it isn’t very good.