Irabu, born in Japan, starred there for nine seasons. Bobby Valentine, who managed Irabu in Japan, recently told Boston.com, "The biggest disappointment that I saw or had was Hideki Irabu, who I had in 1995 when he was absolutely, other than Nolan Ryan, the best thrower I had ever seen. On days, he was the best pitcher I had ever seen in my life. For him to be such an also-ran and a bust here was very surprising."
In 1997, the San Diego Padres purchased Irabu from the Chiba Lotte Marines, but Irabu refused to sign with the Padres. A deal was worked out in April, but it wasn't until May that Irabu officially joined the New York Yankees, who sent players and $3 million to San Diego, and agreed to pay Irabu $12.8 million over four seasons. He spent some of that summer in the minors, and finished with a 7.09 ERA in 13 appearances (including nine starts) with the Yankees. Hardly an auspicious beginning.
Irabu did pitch well in 1998 -- 13 wins and a 4.06 ERA-- and was an important contributor on a Yankees roster that won 114 regular-season games on the way to a four-game sweep of the Padres in the World Series. Notably, though, Irabu didn't pitch a single postseason inning for the Yankees that fall.
The Yankees' dissatisfaction with Irabu -- who'd been acquired largely at the best of owner George Steinbrenner -- nearly came to a head in spring training the next year. From pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre's memoir:
Part of Irabu's problem was that he didn't work very hard at staying in shape, and by 1999 he was beginning to wear out his welcome with us. In spring training he had failed to cover first base a couple of times on ground balls to the right side, and we started to lean on him pretty hard. All pitchers do drills in spring training covering first base, but we brought Irabu out on the back field for some extra sessions, making him repeat those drills by himself.
Nevertheless, in the Yankees' last spring training game, he was late covering first base. Steinbrenner called an impromptu press conference and called Irabu "a fat pussy toad." Irabu responded by claiming that he wasn't prepared to start the third game of the regular season, as scheduled. Eventually everyone kissed and made up, but Irabu will forever be remembered for that incident, and Steinbrenner's label.*
* Granted, the word "pussy" is now usually omitted. But it wasn't a vile word because Steinbrenner was referring not to the female anatomy, but rather to the milky discharge from wounds; it rhymed with "fussy."
Irabu won another 11 games for the Yankees in '99, but pitched just once in the postseason, getting hammered in relief of Roger Clemens in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox.
Irabu pitched sparingly and ineffectively with Montreal, drawing his release in early September, 2001. He came back in 2002 as a reliever with the Rangers and recorded 16 saves, but posted a 5.74 ERA in the process.
According to Stottlemyre, "Irabu had pretty good stuff but he never made the adjustment to pitching against a better caliber of hitter in the major leagues, and it always seemed to shock him whenever someone would hit one of his split-finger fastballs out of the park
And a lot of them got hit out of the park. Irabu pitched in a homer-happy era, but among all pitchers with at least 500 innings, Irabu's 1.6 home runs allowed per nine innings ranks sixth in major-league history.
Irabu returned to Japan in 2003 and pitched well that season, going 13-8 with the Hanshin Tigers. But he wouldn't win another game there (or elsewhere), and afterward things didn't go particularly well for Irabu. In 2008, he was arrested in Osaka for allegedly assaulting a bartender (supposedly after consuming 20 glasses of beer). In 2010, Irabu was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in Southern California, where he's lived for some years.