“Baseball saved my life.”
The words on the page are a sucker punch to the senses, given the context.
We have this thing about sport being the savior. A mom swears it, no doubt, gymnastics kept her little girl from the wrong crowd. Football on the world’s dusty streets and ratty schoolyards keeps millions of kids out of trouble. And a 99-mph fastball steered Hideki Irabu clear of a violent end in the Japanese mafia.
Or so he believed. Hideki Irabu believed baseball saved his life.
Hideki Irabu is dead.
He came to the Yankees in 1997 as an international sensation. Freed from a Chiba Lotte team that lawyered up hard to keep him, he might have been wise to stay home.
But he was all-in. Hideki Irabu stormed the Big Apple, threw a pitch to Rudy Giuliani at City Hall, and struck out nine Tigers in his first outing.
The world needs men and women who go all-in. We’d be living and dying in caves if not for passion and drive, for Lombardi’s exhortation of “sacrifice, self denial, love, loyalty, fearlessness, humility, pursuit of excellence and perfectly disciplined will.” In business or war, religion or science, success comes to those that give a damn and give all of themselves with nothing held back.
It’s the same in sports.
In the long pull, with all that single-minded focus, the best ones think things through. They have a backup plan. And Hideki Irabu had no backup plan.
When his rookie year ended with a seven-plus ERA, he was lost. Inexplicable lapses plopped dark turds among the brilliant outings of the next two seasons. He was panned without mercy on Seinfeld. And when Yankee owner George Steinbrenner called him a fat pussy toad (“rhymes with fussy,” we were reminded without end by a pitiless press), Hideki Irabu was already fading from sublime to punchline.
Sometimes even the smartest among us don’t know the jagged edge we walk, the frailty of our safety net. We hop in a boat and toss the lifejacket on the floorboard, just in case. And when the shit hits the fan, the last thing we ever see is that lifejacket floating beyond our grasp as we slip beneath the waves. We make a plan, sort of, but we die anyway.
The most devoted and talented of us, with the pedal on the floor, never think of lifejackets. They shuck off all else to get the victory, the championship, the scholarship, the time standard, the draft pick. When there’s no sense of perspective, no grasp that an unlucky break will derail the whole thing, it’s a ticking time bomb in a young life.
A teenage swimmer gets wrapped around her coach’s finger because he’s the only strong male who’s ever given a crap about her. A high school quarterback buries his childhood abuse in the weight room and on the field. A huge mixed-race boy grows up bullied in Japan and takes his frustration all the way to New York City.
They throw themselves into their one-track ascent. They ignore the rotting bodies along the path, afraid to look down in case they see something of themselves in the stories of tragedy by the wayside. Inevitably something — an abusive coach, a snapping ligament, a mental breakdown — yanks the magic carpet away. And they’re in free fall, crashing on the rocks below.
In an iconic scene, 23-year-old Anamafi Moala’s life was snuffed out over San Francisco Bay when the 1989 earthquake jerked the concrete away beneath her. One moment her road stretched straight and true home. The next, Anamafi died suspended over the bay.
What of that huge mixed-race boy from Japan? The one whose unblinking vision had a Hall of Fame career in the crosshairs when his road was jerked away beneath him?
He wandered home to play two seasons with Hanshin in the Japan Central league. At age 40 he was back in the U.S., hanging on in his own Ross Eversoles moment, going 5-3 in ten starts with the Long Beach Armada.
On July 27, 2011, fourteen years after Mayor Giuliani presented the new Yankee a crystal Big Apple, a friend found him dangling from a rope in his bedroom. He was 42.
We paused to cry, then went on our way. We had new ballgames to watch, new heroes to cheer as they climbed that precipice.
RIP Hideki Irabu. Sources:
Sports Illustrated 8/7/17 https://www.si.com/mlb/2017/08/01/hideki-irabu
Baseball Reference https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/i/irabuhi01.shtml