Irabu was born in Okinawa City (some sources say Miyakojima City) and raised in Amagasaki (Hyogo). As a high schooler playing for Jinsei Academy High School (Kagawa), he reached the national summer tournament twice (1986-87). He was drafted out of high school in the first round of the 1987 draft by the Lotte Orions (now Chiba Lotte Marines).
While he did get some playing time during the early years of his career, the allure of his fastball (which reached 156 km/h = 97 mph in his sophomore campaign) was offset by poor control, and he bounced back and forth between starting and relief roles. At long last he started to make a name for himself in 1993, when his duels against Kazuhiro Kiyohara became known as “Heisei Era Showdowns.” He solidified his spot in the rotation, winning 7 straight decisions at one point, and earning the nickname “Irabu Jellyfish” after the Nippon Ham Fighters manager said his team got stung by him time and again. Irabu didn’t much care for the nickname, as it also implied that he was only effective in the latter half of the season (when jellyfishes came out in vaster numbers).
Irabu led the Pacific League in wins and strikeouts in 1994, the ERA and strikeout titles in 1995, and the ERA title again in 1996. Despite his success, he started to earn a bad reputation for his temper, as he occasionally threw his cap (and even his glove?) into the crowd when pulled from games earlier than he wanted. That offseason, he put in an official request that the team grant him a chance at signing with a major league team.
Lotte granted his wish, unconditionally giving contract negotiation rights to the San Diego Padres. Irabu, however, wanted no part of playing with any team but the New York Yankees. With the help of agent Don Nomura, Irabu was part of a three-way trade that made him the first Japanese player in New York Yankee history. It was alleged that Irabu was hoping to get the attention of his estranged father (a former member of the US military), and reasoned that playing for the Yankees was his best chance. In any case, complaints from other MLB teams concerning the Irabu acquisition eventually led to the introduction of the posting system.
Irabu made his debut on the top squad in July, throwing 6.2 innings of 5-hit, 2-run ball while striking out 9. He was hailed as “the Japanese Nolan Ryan” by owner George Steinbrenner. However, that sentiment would not last, as Irabu struggled in his second and third outings. His ERA ballooned to 7.98 after 8 starts, and he was removed from the rotation. In his first relief outing, he gave up 9 runs and was scalded by Steinbrenner in postgame comments.
During his second season, Irabu started very strongly despite pain in his right elbow during spring training. But the end of May, he was leading the league in ERA and won Pitcher of the Month honors in May with a 4-1 record and a 1.44 ERA. Unfortunately his season went downhill from there, and despite being part of the World Series winning team in 1998, he did not make any postseason appearances.
Perhaps the most infamous moment in Irabu’s Yankees career took place during spring training, when he failed to cover first base on a grounder (in two straight games) and was called a “fat pussy toad” by Steinbrenner. He stayed at the spring training facilities instead of starting the season with the club. He did start the season with the top squad, but out of the bullpen. When he finally did get back into the starting rotation, he seemed to have found his game again, winning Pitcher of the Month in July, his second such award. Unfortunately, he slumped again from there until season’s end. He did get into one postseason game (Game 3 of the ALCS against the Red Sox), but his line (4.2 IP, 13 H, 8 R) was not a pretty one. That offseason, he was traded to the Montreal Expos for bit players.
As a member of the Expos, Irabu spent much of the 2000 season dealing with elbow issues. Once again in 2001, he complained of elbow and knee problems, and did not make his debut until the end of May. Two weeks later, he felt further discomfort in his elbow. Although he avoided surgery, he did not play very well. He even got suspended by the team for a week because of excessive drinking, which led to his passing out and having to be taken to the hospital. Released by the Expos at the start of September, he went to Puerto Rico to play Winter League ball, where he was named Most Outstanding Pitcher.
The Texas Rangers took a chance on Irabu and ultimately he ended up in their bullpen, even successfully closing games out for a stretch: through the middle of May he had 10 saves and a 0.64 ERA. However, just like in previous seasons, he fell apart soon after, and on July 15th, his season came to an end as he had issues with his lungs.
On December 7, 2002, the Hanshin Tigers signed Hideki Irabu to a one-year, ¥200 million contract. Manager Senichi Hoshino had hopes of using him as a closer, but Irabu wanted to be part of the rotation, and he was given that chance. He pitched well enough to be named to the All-Star team, and started Game 2 (at his old home stadium in Chiba), throwing three shutout innings. He recorded 13 wins for the Tigers, contributing to their first championship in 18 seasons. Unfortunately, he did not perform well in his postseason starts, losing both Games 2 and 6.
Central League opponents saw some major flaws in Irabu’s game early in the 2004 season, and after just three starts, he was demoted to the farm and released at season’s end.
Irabu bounced back and forth between America (where he tried to start an udon chain restaurant) and Japan (where he ran into legal troubles when he assaulted a bar owner). He also tried unsuccessfully to prolong his baseball career on both sides of the ocean in 2009 (with the Long Beach Armada and later with the Kochi Fighting Dogs). Ultimately, and tragically, Irabu’s personal life spun out of control and he was found dead in his home in a Los Angeles suburb on July 27, 2011.
Click here for a good article about his life and the circumstances surrounding his death.