"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Hideki Irabu. Every player that wears the pinstripes is forever a part of the Yankees family, and his death is felt throughout our organization," read a statement issued by the Yankees. "Our sympathies and support go out to his wife, Kyonsu, his two children, and all of his friends and loved ones."
The right-handed pitcher, renowned as a strikeout pitcher with a fastball in the upper-90s during his nine seasons, 1988-96, in Japan's Pacific League, signed a four-year, $12.8 million contract with the Yankees in May 1997 after forcing a trade from the Padres, who had purchased his rights from the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Irabu refused to join San Diego, saying he would only play for the Yankees. Those events led to the creation of the posting system currently utilized by Japanese players who wish to move to the Major Leagues before being eligible for free agency.
Though he went 24-16 in 1998-99, his two full seasons with the Yankees, Irabu was an enigmatic figure because of his actions, weight issues and inconsistencies on the field and off, as well as the high expectations of him based on his success in Japan.
When he failed to cover first base on a ground ball during a Spring Training game in 1999, an angered Steinbrenner called him a "fat toad" and refused to let him go with the team to Los Angeles for its final exhibition games. The Yankees owner later relented.
Irabu was the subject of a comedic line in the final episode of "Seinfeld" in 1998. As Steinbrenner's character is testifying on a witness stand, Frank Costanza, played by Jerry Stiller, stands up and shouts, "How could you spend $12 million on Hideki Irabu?"
Irabu pitched in only one postseason game for the Yankees, who won the World Series in 1998-99, allowing eight runs in 4 2/3 relief innings in a 13-1 loss to the Red Sox in the 1999 American League Championship Series. It was his last appearance for the Yankees, who traded him to the Expos after the season.
He made only 11 starts for Montreal in 2000, going 2-5 with a 7.24 ERA, and was released after pitching in only three games in 2001. He finished his Major League career with the Rangers in 2002, pitching in 38 games and recording 16 saves. He returned to Japan and pitched for the Hanshin Tigers in 2003. He pitched for the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden Baseball League in 2009.
Irabu twice was arrested in the past three years, once on the suspicion of assault at a bar in Japan and once for suspected DUI in California.