Hideki Irabu, a hard-throwing Japanese pitcher who never came close to fulfilling sky-high expectations with the Yankees, was found dead inside his suburban Los Angeles home Wednesday afternoon, authorities said. He was 42.
Irabu's death was determined by police to be "an obvious suicide," according to Sgt. Michael Arriaga of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The Los Angeles Coroner's Office expects to release its autopsy results Friday or Saturday, assistant chief Ed Winter said. Both declined to provide additional details on the manner of death.
The Associated Press reported that neighbors said Irabu apparently had grown despondent recently because of a split with his wife, Kyonsu.
Once called "the Nolan Ryan of Japan," the 6-4, 240-pound Irabu joined the Yankees in 1997 on a four-year, $12.8-million contract, at the time the richest ever given to a Japanese player. But he failed to live up to that during three years in pinstripes. Despite a fastball that hit the upper 90s, Irabu was inconsistent as a Yankee, going 29-20 with a 4.80 ERA from 1997-99.
"Best arm I've seen," longtime Yankees pitching instructor Billy Connors told Newsday Thursday. "When he came to Tampa, he threw his fastball at 95, 96, 97 with a split that was unbelievable. It was unhittable."
At his debut July 10, 1997, many of the 51,901 at Yankee Stadium chanted his name throughout the night. After Irabu struck out nine in 62/3 innings, his catcher -- current Yankees manager Joe Girardi -- said, "He was everything they built him up to be. And maybe a little more."
That night might have been the highlight of Irabu's tenure.
"You always wonder how a pitcher's going to handle it when he gets whacked around, and Irabu didn't handle it as well as you would have liked him to," said Gordon Blakeley, a Yankees executive who played a significant role in acquiring Irabu. "When he got hit a few times, he got to a point where he was, I don't want to say pitching scared, but pitching guarded."
Irabu also frustrated Yankees officials with his perceived lack of work ethic. Once when Irabu failed to cover first base during spring training, an outraged owner George Steinbrenner called him a "fat toad."
Irabu played for Yankees world champions in 1998, when he was 13-9, and 1999. After the 1999 season, the Yankees traded him to the Expos for pitchers Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly and Christian Parker. After two uneventful seasons in Montreal, Irabu ended his career in the majors with the Rangers in 2002.
Irabu is survived by his wife and two children, the Yankees said.