Hideki Irabu was found dead in a house in Rancho Palos Verdes, California yesterday. He was 42 years old – a few months older than I am.
He had been a great pitcher in Japan, but found adjusting to life in the North American major leagues difficult. From July 1997 through September 1999, he pitched for the Yankees, and while he had his moments, it wasn’t easy. He got out of shape, and the thing he’s best remembered for –until now, anyway – was George Steinbrenner calling him “a fat pussy toad.” Whether George meant “full of pus” or the vulgarism usually meant to describe someone cowardly, he never explained.
In 1998, he went 13-9. In 1999, he went 11-7. In both seasons, the Yankees won the World Series. So we should, at the least, thank Irabu for that.
In July 1999, within a few days of each other, I saw Irabu conquer Yankee Fans’ two most offending opponents on the road. On July 11, he pitched 7 strong innings to beat the Mets at Shea Stadium, 6-3 – outdueling Orel Hershiser, no less. Ricky Ledee aided him with a home run. On July 30, manager Joe Torre actually let him pitch a complete game – at Fenway Park. He allowed 7 hits, 1 walk, 3 runs, 12 strikeouts, and, thanks to Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter leading off the game with home runs, and a later homer by Jorge Posada, the Yanks won, 13-3. Both times, it was fun to be partying with my fellow Yankee Fans in the Flushing Toilet and in Scumway Park.
But that was pretty much it. He did not appear in either the ’98 or the ’99 World Series. With the money he was making, we began to call him “Hideki I-Rob-You.” Prior to the 2000 season, he was traded to the Montreal Expos, before washing out with the Texas Rangers in 2002. He was only 33. He went back to Japan, didn’t work out there, and returned to the U.S., where he last threw a professional pitch for the Long Beach Armada in the Golden Baseball League, an independent league full of aging former players (including ex-Met Kevin Mitchell, who’s a player-manager there), in 2009.
Irabu leaves a wife and two children. It looks like he did not find peace in life. I hope he has found it in death.
Irabu's death makes him the first member of the 1998 World Champion Yankees, and the first of the 1999 World Champs, to die. As far as I know (each of these distinctions to follow is “AFAIK”), he is the first member of the Joe Torre generation of Yankees to die – hard to believe, considering that Torre himself and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre both battled cancer and bench coach Don Zimmer was thrown to the ground by his head, by Pedro Martinez.
He also becomes the most recent member of a World Series-winning team to die, replacing Mike Sharperson of the 1988 Dodgers (1961-1996, car crash).
All members of the 1996, 2000 and 2009 World Champion Yankees are still alive. Aside from Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Thurman Munson, all players for the 1977 World Champions are still alive; aside from those 2 and Jim Spencer, all players for the 1978 World Champions are still alive.
Going back before that, you have to go back to 1962, 49 years ago, to find another World Champion, and then they get scarcer:
1962: Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Moose Skowron, Bob Turley, Ralph Terry, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Hector Lopez, Joe Pepitone, Phil Linz, Jim Coates, Art Ditmar, Luis Arroyo, Jim Bouton, Bud Daley, Billy Gardner, Jack Reed, Rollie Sheldon, Tex Clevenger.
1961: Yogi, Whitey, Moose, Turley, Terry, Richardson, Kubek, Lopez, Coates, Ditmar, Arroyo, Daley, Gardner, Sheldon, Clevenger, Joe DeMaestri, Bob Cerv (hurt late in the season, did not play in the Series).
1958: Yogi, Whitey, Moose, Turley, Richardson, Kubek, Andy Carey, Don Larsen, Bobby Shantz, Virgil Trucks, Johnny Kucks, Jerry Lumpe, Norm Siebern, Zach Monroe.
1956: Yogi, Whitey, Moose, Turley, Turley (traded ’57 but returned ’60), Richardson, Cerv, Carey, Larsen, Kucks, Lumpe, Siebern, Jerry Coleman, Charlie Silvera, Billy Hunter, Eddie Robinson. (Silvera, a backup catcher, has 6 rings but only appeared in one Series game, in 1949. Cerv was traded after this season, returned in ’60, traded again after the season, returned again in ’61, traded again in ’62. He had brief callups in ’51, ’52 and ’53, but wasn’t on the Series roster except in ’55, ’56 and ’60. The Billy Hunter mentioned here is best known as Earl Weaver’s 3rd base coach with the 1970s Orioles, and managed the Rangers in 1977 and ’78, and should not be confused with the head of the NBA players’ union. And this Eddie Robinson should not be confused with the legendary Grambling State football coach.)
1953: Yogi, Whitey, Silvera, Bob Kuzava, Jim McDonald, Bill Renna. (Coleman had just returned from the Korean War and, while he played in 8 games that season, was not on the World Series roster.)
1952: Yogi, Silvera, Kuzava, McDonald, Irv Noren. (Coleman was in the service, and Whitey was as well.)
1951: Yogi, Coleman, Silvera, Kuzava, Noren, Bobby Brown. (Whitey was in the service.)
1950: Yogi, Whitey, Coleman, Silvera, Brown.
1949: Yogi, Coleman, Silvera, Brown.
1947: Yogi, Brown, Allie Clark.
The earliest living World Series-winning player is Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial, of the 1942, ’44 and ’46 St. Louis Cardinals. He became such when Tommy Henrich, the “Old Reliable” of the 1937, ’38, ’39, ’41, ’47, ’49 and ’50 Yankees, died last year.