The Japanese baseball fraternity was shocked and saddened by Friday's news that former New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu was found dead in a Los Angeles suburb after an apparent suicide.
"He was a great pitcher in Japan but I got the sense his attitude changed when he went to New York," said Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese to pitch in the major leagues. "It's very sad. He was still so young."
The body of 42-year-old Irabu was found Wednesday at a house in Rancho Palos Verdes, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb.
County sheriff's Sgt. Michael Arriaga said "he was found dead by an apparent suicide."
Before going to the major leagues, Irabu was one of the most dominant pitchers in Nippon Professional Baseball.
He led the Pacific League in wins in 1994 with 15 and ERA in 1995 and 1996 (2.53, 2.40) when he played for the Chiba Lotte Marines.
In a country where finesse pitchers are prevalent, Irabu's power stood out. In 1993, he threw a 158 kph (98 mph) fastball which still stands as the fastest pitch thrown in the Pacific League.
"He was an outstanding pitcher on his best days and a horrible one on his worst days," said Robert Whiting, author of several books on Japanese baseball. "A real puzzle. He seemed to have a lot of anger inside him, which perhaps came from his rather unusual childhood."
Irabu's father was an American serviceman who left Japan after Hideki was born without leaving a forwarding address. His mother was an Okinawan who remarried a restaurateur from Osaka, who raised Hideki.
"It was a very sensitive subject to Hideki," said Whiting. "He did not like being asked questions about it."
Irabu's departure from Japan professional baseball led to the creation of the posting system, which allows teams from the major leagues to sign Japanese players before they become free agents. Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka are among the Japanese players who went to the U.S. under the system.
"Hideki Irabu was a fighter . . . a true man of his words, brave and was very sweet and giving" his former agent Don Nomura posted on his Twitter account. "He made the real history between United States and Japan."
Irabu joined the New York Yankees 14 years ago in a swell of international excitement. The quirky, flame-throwing Japanese right-hander seemed destined to become a pioneering star for American baseball's marquee franchise.
Irabu never reached those enormous expectations, and his career spiraled.
"He was a world-class pitcher," said former major league manager Bobby Valentine, who managed Irabu in Japan in 1995. "When Nolan Ryan saw him, he said he had never seen anything like it. There were just some days when he was as good a pitcher as I had ever seen. A fabulous arm."
Irabu was billed as the Japanese version of Ryan when he arrived in the United States in 1997, a hard-throwing starter with a blazing fastball who excelled as a strikeout specialist — an almost unfair addition to the defending World Series champions.
After an impressive debut with the Yankees that summer, he was a disappointment to the Yankees and himself during three seasons in the Bronx. Instead, he was forever tagged with a label from late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who called him a "fat . . . toad" after Irabu failed to cover first base during an exhibition game.
Irabu finished 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA in his tenure with the Yankees, two years in Montreal and a final season in the Texas bullpen in 2002. He was a member of two Yankees teams that won the World Series, but his only postseason action was a single relief appearance in the 1999 AL Championship Series when Boston tagged him for 13 hits.
Irabu posted a team-leading 16 saves — the only saves of his major league career — with Texas in 2002. He then returned to Japan for the 2003 season and enjoyed renewed success, earning a win in the All-Star Game, going 13-8 and helping Hanshin win its first league title in 18 years.
Irabu made a comeback in April 2009 in the independent Golden Baseball League, going 5-3 with a 3.58 ERA for the Long Beach Armada. He then returned to Japan and was introduced that August as a member of the Kochi Fighting Dogs, saying, "I have high expectations for myself."
Irabu pitched in an American independent league and signed with a Japanese team in recent years while living with his family in Southern California. Neighbors believe Irabu had grown despondent recently because of a split with his wife.
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."
Irabu was one of several pitchers from Japan who hoped to duplicate Hideo Nomo's trailblazing achievements in the major leagues. Irabu also was a curiosity — he taped magnets all over his body when he pitched, hoping they would bring wellness.
Although Irabu largely struggled in the majors, he left a lasting legacy. Several big stars, from Ichiro to Hideki Matsui, followed Nomo and Irabu from Japan to the United States.
"He was one of the pioneers," Valentine said. "There was a lot riding on his shoulders."
Irabu starred in Japan for nearly a decade before the San Diego Padres purchased his contract from the Chiba Lotte Marines. But Irabu declined to join the Padres, insisting he would only play for the Yankees.