Ex-Yankees pitcher Irabu found dead

By Robert Jablon
Associated Press / July 29, 2011

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LOS ANGELES - Hideki Irabu joined the New York Yankees 14 years ago in a swell of international excitement. The quirky, flamethrowing Japanese righthander seemed destined to become a pioneering star for American baseball’s marquee franchise.

Irabu never reached those enormous expectations and his career spiraled downward. On Wednesday, the 42-year-old was found dead in a home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., a wealthy Los Angeles suburb.

Los Angeles County coroner’s official Ed Winter said his office is investigating Irabu’s death as a suicide, revealing no additional circumstances. An autopsy will be performed today or tomorrow.

Irabu was billed as the Japanese version of Nolan Ryan when he arrived in the United States in 1997, a starter with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball who excelled as a strikeout specialist - an almost unfair addition to the defending World Series champions.

After an impressive debut with the Yankees that summer, he was a disappointment to the Yankees and himself during three seasons in the Bronx. Instead, he was forever tagged with a label from late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who called him a “fat . . . toad’’ after Irabu failed to cover first base during an exhibition game.

“He was a work in progress,’’ said ESPN broadcaster Bobby Valentine, who managed Irabu in Japan in 1995. “It just didn’t progress I guess the way he had planned or the way some people planned.’’

Irabu finished 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA in his tenure with the Yankees, two years in Montreal, and a final season in the Texas bullpen in 2002. He was a member of two Yankees teams that won the World Series, but his only postseason action was a single relief appearance in the 1999 AL championship series when the Red Sox tagged him for 13 hits.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Hideki Irabu,’’ the Yankees said in a statement. “Every player that wears the Pinstripes is forever a part of the Yankees family, and his death is felt throughout our organization.’’

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