"Fat Pussy Toad."
Imagine that etched on your tombstone for eternity. For Hideki Irabu one wonders if he could ever escape the infamous George Steinbrenner moniker, even as reports out of California today seem to indicate suicide for the former Yankee...
A tragic end to a story that began with such promise.
There was a time not too long ago when bringing a player over from Japan seemed like a sure thing. The instant success stories of Hideo Nomo and later Ichiro Suzuki fueled this notion, following decades of skepticism about the legitimacy of Japanese baseball. With years of experience in the NPB prior to posting, suddenly teams figured they were getting All-Stars with proven track records who could slide into their rotation or lineup each and every time with limited risk.
The boost in recognition through media coverage and merchandise sales back on the other side of the Pacific didn't hurt either as players became celebrities known as much for their quirks/personalities as their performance on the diamond across two continents.
Win win for everybody...case closed.
Unfortunately for Irabu, signing with the Yankees proved anything but a solid fit. Yes the Yankees won and Irabu picked up two World Series rings, but on a personal level he really never could live up to the hype.
A similar story seems to be unfolding in Boston as Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched well early on and helped the RedSox win a title, but has also been frequently hurt and at best an enigma.
Kei Igawa's story by comparison is worse, as one has to wonder if the journey was worth it?
For position players it's a similar story as for every Ichiro or Hideki Matsui, there are a handful of other players like Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Kaz Matsui, Kenji Johjima and Akinori Iwamura who left Japan as All-Stars and found coming to America a mixed bag at best, eventually returning to Japan with the hopes of resurrecting their careers.
Some blame the rigors of the Japanese system taking a toll, while others point to the isolation and culture shock of being an expat, yet pride and determination continue to drive these players to make the leap. (Money doesn't hurt either as these players are well compensated, but keep in mind they are also paid well in back home and enjoy rock-star treatment.)
The attraction and allure of playing on the world's biggest stage also is what entices many, but where does this leave the next batch of stars in Japan contemplating a move stateside?
Players like Yu Darvish, Norichika Aoki and Hiroyuki Nakajima would be a welcome addition to just about any lineup or rotation, yet...
Will these players be able to earn as much as their predecessors or suffer from guilt by association?
If they do sign, will they too burn out?
Perhaps the rhetoric and expectations need to be toned down, but does that hurt their asking price when approaching potential suitors?
Sadly these players are often left at the mercy of handlers (agents and company owned teams) and reduced to caricatures made to sound mystical/cryptic through translators offering quotes that most often baffle fans and writers alike; thus making it difficult to get their true thoughts and feelings across.
What is clear is that "Big in Japan" under the current construct doesn't seem to be translating anymore. One can only hope Hideki Irabu's death is a signal to all parties involved that significant changes need to be made. Ideally this would help benefit the teams and players not just in the transaction phase getting players to America, but long term supporting both their physical and mental health as well.
Otherwise Hideki Irabu's memory becomes nothing more than another sad Steinbrenner punchline.