The summer of 1997 was one of the last in my life which I’d consider carefree. I was between my sophomore and junior years of college. Much like this summer, it was a hot and humid one. I worked two jobs, one in a restaurant, and the other at King Classic’s lawfirm. I went to a lot of Yankees games that summer (that year was the first we had the Sunday Plan) and I believe I caught most or part of every game I didn’t attend on TV or the radio. Most days, I’d go to lunch with King Classic, and on the ride, we’d listen to whatever Yankees discussion was going on on WFAN.
That summer, the city was abuzz over Hideki Irabu, a Japanese pitcher hailed as that nation’s Roger Clemens. Irabu’s NPB team had dealt him to the Padres, but Irabu would only play for one team- the Yankees. He was acquired by the Yankees and expected to be the greatest pitcher ever. Even though he was dominant in his first MLB start against Detroit, the proclaimed superstar stumbled, displaying a bad attitude and all-too hittable stuff. Still, he had great marketing, selling out his first few starts and having a number of t-shirts on sale at the Stadium memorabilia stands (I still have two, although the Irabu poster I owned had to be thrown out due to water damage).
Irabu went back and forth from The Bronx to Columbus that summer, but actually made the Yankees’ starting rotation in 1998.
In the early months of ’98, Irabu was the teams’ most dependable starter. In a year where injuries threatened the team early on, he kept a sub-3.00 ERA through July, and didn’t get a loss until May 30. It looked as if the Yankees had the pitcher they expected to get the year before. And unlike in ’97, where he seemed not to care, in 1998, he was pitching like he had something to prove. Irabu even incited a bench-clearing brawl against the Blue Jays when he charged home plate after hitting Shannon Stewart with a pitch.
Starting in late ’98, Hideki turned back into a pumpkin and floundered throughout ’99 before being dealt away to Montreal, and then ending his career in Texas. Irabu attempted a comeback a few years ago, but it didn’t work out.
Irabu’s name was in the news today, and not for a good reason- the former Yankee was found dead in California. You never like to read stories like that, especially when it turns out he left a family behind.
Sure, it’s a sad story, and I’m sorry for his family. But ever since hearing the news earlier today, all I’ve been thinking about was a hot summer when my biggest concern was whether the Yankees would win that day.