After strategically buying up every room in a Nicaraguan hotel in 2002, former Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein thought he had pulled the ultimate fast one on his rivals.
Engaging in ample and undisturbed face time with free agent Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras, Epstein could freely sip rum, smoke cigars with the right-hander and most importantly, have him sign on the dotted line.
However, only hours later Epstein would learn that his prized offseason prize would waltz into the sunset hand-in-hand with the New York Yankees.
So, when Japanese gyro-baller Daisuke Matsuzaka announced his intention to pitch in the United States in 2006, Epstein and the Red Sox would not be denied.
Blowing everyone out of the water, including the Yankees, with a $51.1 million dollar bid, the Red Sox had their international star that would potentially shift the balance of power in the AL East.
New York had to quickly issue a returning salvo. Something to show the landscape that they were still the mighty Yankees.
In an unprepared and impulsive pounce, the Bombers fired back with a winning $26 million posting fee ($46 million contract overall) for Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa.
During his eight years in the Japanese Nippon Pro league, Igawa mustered a mediocre 86-60 record. While he led the league in strikeouts in three of those years, his success rate was a roller coaster ride to say the least.
In 2003, he won the Eiji Sawamura award (Japanese equivalent to the CyYoung award), only to be demoted to the minors in 2005. In fact, his inconsistency became such a touchy subject with the Japanese fans that the left-hander was viewed as a “has been” of sorts.
Nevertheless, the Yankees were fully aware that Igawa was no Matsuzaka. After dominating the 2006 World Baseball Classic, Dice-K left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was the crown jewel of Japan. Acquiring Igawa was a merely a signal to everyone that the Yankees were far from out of the loop on an international scale.
Unfortunately, the figurative chest-puffing by the Yanks backfired more than they could have ever imagined.
His first start resulted in a five-inning affair, where he allowed eight hits, seven runs and two home runs. That performance was only the beginning of a Yankee blunder that eventually became a deep and painful punch line.
Over the next three months in 2007, the overwhelmed hurler was pounded by American League bats to the tune of over four runs in six innings in half of his appearances. In a glimmer of pinstriped hope, Igawa pitched six innings of scoreless two-hit ball against the Red Sox in late April.
But, the eventual move was imminent.
On July 27, in a form of minor concession, the Yankees demoted the left-hander to Triple-A in an effort to rebuild the failed product. In fact, when Igawa was claimed off of trade-waivers in August by the Padres, the club rejected any trade talk because they believed they could mold the mush into something.
If only at that point the Yankees had pulled some strings and moved some money around, they could have wiped their hands clean of their colossal mishap. Kei Igawa could have been on another coast and been someone else’s problem.
When spring rolled around in 2008, he stayed behind in Scranton while the big club went to battle. During that year, he would make two appearances in the Bronx, which resulted in 0-1 record with an eye-popping ERA of 13.50. He would never pitch for the New York Yankees again.
Throughout the next three years, Kei Igawa firmly sat in Major League baseball purgatory. Eventually, the rebuttal to Dice-K set the Scranton Wilkes-Barre record for most wins—small consolation for a proud franchise being saddled with an expensive eyesore.
So, last week his baseball career with the New York Yankees ended. It was announced that he had signed a two-year deal with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan. At 32 years of age, perhaps Igawa can resurrect a career in his homeland that eons ago had promise and discover who he is again.
As for the Yankees, they don’t need a genius to inform them what exactly Igawa was to them.
He was a knee-jerk reaction to a hated rival’s move. Embodying the definition of expensive mistakes of “baseball’s bourgeoisie,” Igawa firmly stood as the highest paid minor-leaguer in all of the land for four years.
Eloquently and honestly, general manager Brian Cashman pulled no punches describing the whole experience. “It was a disaster”, admitted Cashman. “We failed.”