Baseball is a dreamer maker and a heart breaker. Nathan Thompson looks back on his own boyhood baseball hopes and on the career of former New York Yankee pitcher Hideki Irabu who died at 42 of an apparent suicide.
I started following our local Major League Baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, about the same I began playing the game myself. That season, 1982, was one of the worst in our franchise’s history. While I hacked away at soft baseballs off a tee, and swerved between hawk-eyed focus and total slumber in the outfield, the big boys lost over 100 games, and finished dead last in many statistical categories. No doubt, they themselves were mostly kids, a ragtag bunch of youngsters and a handful of barely known veterans that never would become household names. But something about them spoke of good things to come, and a mere five years later, the team would win the World Series. Two years after that, my own team would win the city championship, lending energy to my dream of becoming the future starting center fielder of the Twins, just like fan favorite Kirby Puckett.
Baseball has a way of breaking hearts on a regular basis. It has an almost abusively long season, stretching a good 200 games for those teams that make the playoffs. It’s a game where a single missed cue, overthrown ball, or a hit sliced too far to one side or the other can be the difference between winning and losing. It’s a game where today’s superstar often becomes tomorrow’s goat and then the next day’s superstar once again. In other words, it’s a game that either trains you how to be serious and not so serious at the same time, or it treats you like a paltry tree in an Oklahoma twister. Unfortunately, for Hideki Irabu, former Japanese star and one-time New York Yankee sensation, it appears that the latter was the case.
When Hideki Irabu made his New York Yankee and American Baseball debut in the summer of 1997, he was being compared to then-recently-retired pitching legend Nolan Ryan. The previous autumn, the Yankees, baseball’s version of the royal family, had won their first World Series in almost 20 years, and Irabu’s signing was expected to help the Yankees repeat as champions. Indeed, Irabu was dominant during his first game, looking every bit the part of Nolan Ryan’s successor, striking out nine batters in only six innings.
Having spent the previous two seasons mired in right field and batting towards the bottom of the lineup, at age 12 I suddenly started to “get” the game of baseball. Pitches that used to blow past me were now smashed by me past everyone. Fly balls that used to scare me now were now easily caught. Before, when I got on base, I’d cling to the bag, afraid to get thrown out. Now, I was routinely stealing second, even third base, with ease. My baseball rise was on, and less than a year later, I would be one of the team stars, smashing doubles and triples every other at-bat, and making circus catches in the outfield on our way to the city title.
It’s funny how quickly stories can change, and not in a way you could ever envision them they will. The 1997 Yankees didn’t make it to the World Series, nor did Irabu pitch like Nolan Ryan the rest of that year. Or in any year, for that matter. Less than two years after receiving a standing ovation after his first game in Yankee Stadium, Hideki Irabu had become “a fat toad” in the eyes of team owner George Steinbrenner, and was on his way out of town. He was a middling pitcher after that, bouncing out of the Major Leagues, and heading back to Japan for awhile, before finally washing out with the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden Baseball League just two years ago.
The year after winning the city title, the team I played on had an even better season. All of us, including myself, had better years than the previous one, and we raced through the first game of the city playoffs with a confidence bordering on arrogance. I can almost pinpoint the moment when it all changed – when baseball seemingly turned against me, and started to churn its awful winds around my lanky frame.
I was standing on deck during the last inning of the second playoff game, watching my friend John getting destroyed by the opposing team’s pitcher. We had a runner on second base, and were down by a run. And I – I was afraid. I stood near the backstop fence, taking fake swings as every pitch came in, but it was no use. I hadn’t figured out this guy’s pitching the whole game, and I was too nervous to figure it out now.
John struck out, and I stepped to the plate. The first pitch swirled towards my face, and then broke away just before crossing home. Strike one. The next one, I swear it was going to hit me, and as I collapsed and stirred up a pile of dust, I heard the umpire yell “STEEE-Rikee.” I got up, turned back at the umpire and glared. That was no bloody strike, I thought, and then spun around to see the pitcher smiling at me. I took a step back, and swung a few times, and then leaned in, scared out of my mind. Another pitch sizzled in towards my head and then broke down and across the plate, as I desperately swung and missed at it for the final time. Our season ended after the next batter, and I spent the bus ride home being chastised by the coach for throwing my helmet and failing to shake the opposing team’s hands following the game. Usually quite the good sport, my inner jackass had erupted, and playing baseball would never be the same for me again.
In many respects, Hideki Irabu’s life was nothing like my own. The same year he became a New York Yankee, Irabu learned that the man who raised him was not his real father. That his actual father was an American Vietnam veteran who left Japan after Hideki was born, unable or unwilling to help raise his son. He was, at least for a brief time, one of the most famous athletes in both the U.S. and Japan, and made millions of dollars in the process. I can’t relate to any of that, and yet somehow I feel a connection, not only through baseball, but also in the ways that the pressure of expectations can impact a life.
I have never seriously contemplated suicide, but when I look back at my teen years and early 20s, I can see a young man almost driven mad by his own expectations, and the perceptions of others. I sometimes wonder what might have happened had I actually been good enough to become a famous or even semi-famous baseball player – or a writer whose star rose early in life. Maybe my path would have been much more like Irabu’s, a man who couldn’t fulfill the dreams of others, and apparently lost the ability to dream of a new life for himself following his baseball career.
“Baseball” sarowen @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Hideki Irabu” Photographer Unknown.
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