Few of the current Yankees knew Hideki Irabu, but those who remain from the championship teams of the late 1990s remembered him Friday as a vibrant, personable man.
“I was devastated to be honest with you,” Jorge Posada said before the Yankees' series opener against Baltimore on Friday night. “I got to know him real well. A guy with a lot riding on his shoulders and I thought he did a hell of a job for us. Tough times.”
Irabu, a famed Japanese pitcher whose career fizzled out with Yankees after three seasons (1997-99), was found dead in his suburban Los Angeles home Wednesday afternoon. He was 42. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department determined his death to be “an obvious suicide.”
Manager Joe Girardi, a catcher for the Yankees from 1996-99, said he heard the news around 6 p.m. Thursday.
“I thought he was enjoyable to be around, he pitched a lot of good games for us,” said Girardi, who caught Irabu's major-league debut on July 10, 1997.. “Whenever you lose someone before, in your mind, they should be gone, it saddens us. He’s going to be missed. He had children. He was a guy that was fun to be around. And it’s sad.”
Said Derek Jeter: “It’s unexpected. Kind of caught off guard. Irabu was fun. He didn’t speak much English. He knew more than he probably let you guys believe. He was fun to be around. He had a good personality. I feel bad for him and his family.”
Lauded as the “the Nolan Ryan of Japan,” Irabu was signed by the Yankees to a four-year, $12.8-million contract in 1997. But he never lived up to the weighty expectations, going 29-20 with a 4.80 ERA during his three years in pinstripes.
But his former teammates preferred to remember the good times.
“He was great in the clubhouse,” said Posada. “A guy that always had a smile on his face, a guy that really enjoyed being in the clubhouse. Obviously the communication barrier was there, but he was always trying to learn the language and the words that he spoke were the funny ones.”