The death Thursday of Hideki Irabu, by apparent suicide, serves as a sad reminder of how highly sought after he was when he joined Major League Baseball in 1997.
Hideo Nomo had become the first native Japanese to pitch in the major leagues since the mid-1960s when he made his splashy, Rookie of the Year debut with the Dodgers in 1995. That sent a wave of American scouts to Japan, with teams frantically trying to make deals with Japanese players and teams. Irabu's NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) team, the Chiba Lotte Marines, arranged a deal with the San Diego Padres, with whom they had a working agreement; Irabu would become a Padre in exchange for the Marines being able to observe major league spring training, and a couple of low-level minor leaguers.
Irabu refused to go. He said he'd play for no one but the Yankees. This set off negotiations; eventually, the Yankees sent outfield prospect Ruben Rivera (hey! another bust!), minor leaguer Rafael Medina and $3 million to San Diego for Irabu's rights. More contentious negotiations followed; Irabu eventually got an $8.5 million signing bonus and a four-year, $12.5 million contract, back when $12.5 million was real money.
And he was a flop. George Steinbrenner famously called Irabu a "fat pussy toad" when he failed to cover first base during a spring-training game; he was awful with the Yankees and eventually exiled to baseball's Siberia, the Montreal Expos. He last pitched in the major leagues with the Texas Rangers in 2004 and had a brief fling with the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden League in 2009.
This didn't stop the flood of Japanese players headed to the major leagues, more than 40 in all, many highly touted: Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kenji Johjima, Shingo Takatsu, Kazuo Matsui, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Kazuhisa Ishii, the $46 million Kei Igawa (another Yankee bust, still pitching in their farm system), and perhaps most famously of all, Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Matsuzaka wasn't the first Japanese player to sign a major-league contract via the "posting" system (Ichiro Suzuki was), which was created as a direct result of the Irabu mess, but he was by far the most expensive. Japanese players who aren't free agents (it takes nine years to get there in NPB) can be "posted" by their teams; MLB teams can submit sealed bids. The "winning" MLB team gets only the rights to sign the player; the Japanese team gets the posting fee if the player is actually signed (which they almost always are). In all, it took over $100 million to get Matsuzaka, considered the best pitcher in Japan at the time, to the Red Sox.
Even the wealthy Red Sox must regret that deal. And surely, the Cubs regret the $48 million they spent on the just-traded Kosuke Fukudome, who was reported to be the best hitter in Japan at the time of his December 2007 signing. Fukudome's power numbers never translated to the USA and though his OBP (career .369) and defense have been major league quality, he wound up as an expensive platoon player, shipped to the Indians this week for a couple of prospects.
Apart from Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, no Japanese position players have been able sustain success (more than two or three years) in MLB. Why is this? Part of it may be a cultural adjustment, being far from home and family and apart from an interpreter, not being able to converse even casually with teammates. Part of it may be the larger MLB parks and better MLB pitching; the fact that marginal major leaguers like Tuffy Rhodes and Matt Murton have gone to Japan and become All-Stars is telling.
Another, perhaps more critical, factor may be that most of the Japanese failures have been players signed after the age of 30. They have already had their primes in Japan, and MLB teams are paying for it. Given the large number of failures, and huge dollars paid to players like Fukudome and Dice-K, we may see a pullback in the number of Japanese players headed to MLB in the near future, with the exception of someone like Yu Darvish, who may wind up being posted after this season; Darvish, the son of a Japanese mother and Iranian father, is physically larger than most Japanese and doesn't turn 25 until next month.
So the flood of Japanese players over the last 15 years may slow to a trickle; this will get only the best of the best to MLB, reducing the number of bad contracts sent across the Pacific. It may have another effect as well -- keeping most of Japan's biggest stars in Japan, helping their two major leagues, which have suffered from all the MLB signings.