By The Common Man
It’s probably fair to say that Hideki Irabu didn’t know what he was getting into when he forced a trade away from the San Diego Padres in May of 1997. Irabu was defiant from the start when the Padres acquired the exclusive rights to negotiate with him, saying he would only play for the Yankees. Hailed as having a 100 mph fastball, and a 90 mph splitter, Irabu was called the Nolan Ryan of Japan and billed as the savior of the Yankees pitching staff when he was acquired earlier that year.
But the pitcher that showed up had trouble reaching the mid-90s with that fastball, displayed a great deal of emotional immaturity, and pitched poorly, and did so in the biggest media fishbowl this side of the Royal Family. Irabu may have wanted New York, but he wasn’t made for New York, at least right away. He might have wanted Steinbrenner, but he wasn’t ready for Steinbrenner, and the way the Boss switched between calling a player as the greatest thing since Cy Young and a “fat toad.”
So when Irabu followed up his nine strikeout debut with three straight stinkers, he was not ready when his owner, the media, and the crowd turned on him. Ultimately, he probably would have benefitted from starting his career in San Diego, where the pressure would have been less crushing.
Yankees fans never forgave Irabu for not living up to their expectations, even though he provided decent production for a backend starter in 1998 and 1999, and the Yankees won consecutive World Series. And perhaps, Irabu never forgave himself, given that his death last week has been ruled a suicide. It’s a sad end for a man who came to New York like Caesar after conquering Pompey. But for as little as Yankees fans liked Irabu, they owe him a debt of gratitude. Because, beginning with the offseason trade to the Expos in 2000, the Yankees have built a foundation of players that has helped them to remain the powerhouse of the American League. Observe:
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The Yankees acquired Irabu in 1997 for $3 million Rafael Medina and another troubled player, Ruben Rivera. After being properly shamed and humbled by George Steinbrenner, who knew a thing or two about how to publicly shame someone, the Yankees dealt Irabu to the Expos for three prospects. Due to injuries, Irabu would crater in Montreal, posting a 6.69 ERA over 14 starts in two years. But the players the Yankees got back included two future All Stars, Ted Lilly and Jake Westbrook. Lilly started 32 games for the Yankees, with an ERA+ of 97, but was actually having a great season in 2002 when he was dealt to Oakland in a three team deal for Jeff Weaver. Like Irabu before him, Weaver was a huge disappointment in pinstripes, posting a 5.35 ERA in a season-and-a-half. He was packaged with a couple of prospects to the Dodgers for Kevin Brown, who did pretty well in the Bronx in 2004, given that he was 39 years old, but who bombed in 2005 and retired.
The other future All Star the Yankees got for Irabu was Jake Westbrook. He was only in the organization for a short time, and got into just three games in pinstripes before he was traded with Zach Day and Riky Ledee to Cleveland for David Justice. Justice was terrific for the Yankees in 2000, hitting .305/.391/.585 and 20 homers in 317 plate appearances, helping the club win their third straight World Series.
Justice was traded to the Mets after 2001 for Robin Ventura, who was terrific in 2002, hitting .247/.368/.458 with 27 homers. With age taking a toll, Ventura was sent to the Dodgers in the middle of 2003 for Bubba Crosby and Scott Proctor. After being driven into the ground by Joe Torre in 2006, Proctor was traded to the Dodgers for Wilson Betemit, who plugged som holes for the Yankees for a couple of seasons before he and two other players were sent to the White Sox for Kanekoa Texeira (since lost in the Rule 5 draft) and current Yankees rightfielder Nick Swisher, who has hit .269/.368/.489 with 72 homers and a 125 OPS+ for the Yankees in two and a half seasons.
So as the Yankees push toward another playoff appearance this year, having wrapped up the Wild Card already, Yankees fans should keep in mind that one of the reasons they were able to do that so easily is because of Hideki Irabu.