Hideki Irabu Death: Japanese Righthander Was Pioneer, But Had Troubled Life

When Japanese righthander Hideki Irabu first came to pitch in the USA, he was widely considered the best pitcher in Japan. But the deal that originally sent him from the Chiba Lotte Marines, his Japanese team, to the San Diego Padres set the wheels in motion for the modern posting system, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Set on playing for the Yankees, Mr. Irabu refused to go to San Diego.

Robert Whiting, author of several books about Japanese baseball, wrote in his 2004 book about Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, “The Meaning of Ichiro,” that Mr. Irabu compared the San Diego deal to the “slave trade” and said he was being treated like a piece of meat. San Diego caved and traded Mr. Irabu to the Yankees in 1997.

“He will go down in history for fighting for players’ rights in Japan, by refusing to accept the Lotte trade to San Diego. Because of him and [Alfonso] Soriano, the posting system was born,” said Mr. Whiting in an e-mail.

But Irabu, after a sensational debut, had a rough career in MLB; his failure to cover first base during a spring training game in 1999 got Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to call him a “fat toad”; he was eventually traded to the Montreal Expos and wound up his MLB career as a reliever for the Texas Rangers.

He last pitched for the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden League in 2009 and was living in southern California, where his personal life became troubled:

Mary Feuerlicht said she was about to go pick up her son on Wednesday morning when a man came running down the driveway from Irabu’s large two-story home, perched atop a hill with views of the harbor and downtown Los Angeles, pleading with her to call police.

Feuerlicht said she was later told by sheriff’s deputies and the man who asked her for help that Irabu’s wife had left him, taking their two young daughters. She hadn’t seen Irabu’s wife and children for two months, but said the family regularly left town for the summer.

“When I saw him for the past month or so he seemed kind of down,” she said. “He wasn’t kind of perky like I’ve seen him before.”

The Los Angeles County coroner’s office is investigating Irabu’s death as a suicide and will perform an autopsy Friday or Saturday.

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