Keeping Score

Hideki Irabu: A One-Time Baseball Sensation Meets a Sad End

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Hideki Irabu before a baseball game in 1997 at Yankee Stadium in New York, New York

On Wednesday, former New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu was found dead in his apartment outside Los Angeles. Authorities are calling Irabu’s death an apparent suicide.

It was the second tragedy to confront the sports world this week. On Monday, U.S. freestyle skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, who won the Olympic silver medal in aerials at the Vancouver Olympics, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Peterson had struggled with depression.

Irabu had long been off baseball’s radar screen; he last pitched in 2003. But his arrival in the U.S. was hard to forget. Irabu was a sensation in Japan, where he clocked the fastest pitch ever recorded in the country’s history (98 MPH) in the mid-1990s. Following the trail blazed by Hideo Nomo, the Japanese pitcher who won Rookie of the Year honors for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, Irabu headed to America in 1997. The San Diego Padres acquired his rights, but Irabu refused to sign with the club, insisting that he’d only play for the New York Yankees. The Padres traded him to New York, who signed him to a four-year, $12.8 million contract.

(PHOTOS: Last Out at Yankee Stadium)

In true New York fashion, Irabu’s acquisition was met with excessive fanfare. Upon his arrival, mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a crazed Yankee fan who kind of considered himself part of the team, held a ceremony for Irabu at City Hall, and gave Irabu a Tiffany Crystal Apple. Usually, one makes a positive contribution to a city before the mayor showers him or her with gifts. All Irabu did was show up.

At a jam-packed Yankee Stadium, Irabu struck out nine Detroit Tigers in his debut, and the Yankees won, 10-3. Giuliani then gave a radio address about Irabu. “His arrival is an event of great significance for the relationship between American and international baseball, but it is of even greater significance as an example of the immigrant experience in New York City,” Giuliani said.

The expectations were outrageous. So Irabu was destined to disappoint. He finished 1997 with a 7.09 ERA. In 1998, he went 13-9 with a respectable 4.06 ERA; that year, the Yanks won a then-American League record 114 regular-season games, and the World Series. He did not make a post-season appearance, however, and the following spring, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner famously called Irabu a “fat toad” after he failed to cover first base in an exhibition game. The Yankees traded him to the Montreal Expos after the 1999 season. He spent two lackluster years in Canada before finishing his big league career as a relief pitcher for the Texas Rangers.

It’s a shame that Irabu, who was arrested for suspected assault in Japan in 2008, and received a DUI in California last year, will be remembered for the “fat toad” comment more than anything else. He did have terrific stretches for great Yankees teams. Irabu started the 1998 season 6-1, with 1.59 ERA. He also won eight straight decisions in 1999.

And he was part of the early wave of Japanese players who made an impact in the U.S. Once Japan’s Nolan Ryan could play in the big leagues, so could Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Daisuke “Dice K” Matsuzaka and others. Hideki Irabu might not have shined once he reached the major leagues. But Irabu was important, and his death is a loss for baseball, on both sides of the Pacific.

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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