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Irabu starred in Japan for nearly a decade before the San Diego Padres purchased his contract from the Chiba Lotte Marines. But Irabu declined to join the Padres, insisting he would only play for the Yankees.
The Yankees put together a package and traded for Irabu a few months later and signed him to a four-year, $12.8 million contract.
"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Hideki Irabu," the Yankees said in a statement. "Every player that wears the Pinstripes is forever a part of the Yankees family, and his death is felt throughout our organization."
Irabu pitched just eight games in the minors before making his big league debut at Yankee Stadium on July 10, 1997. The crowd was buzzing even before his first pitch, and fans on two continents watched him. T-shirts with "Typhoon Irabu" were on sale at the concession stands at Yankee Stadium and sushi was sold alongside the hot dogs and beers.
With current Yankees manager Joe Girardi as his catcher that night, Irabu retired the first six Detroit batters, striking out four of them and showing a 96 mph fastball. He fanned nine in 6 2-3 innings and got the win.
When he walked off the mound in the seventh inning, Yankees fans gave him a standing ovation. Some even bowed with both hands over their heads, and Irabu came out of the dugout for a curtain call.
That, however, was perhaps his finest moment in the majors.
"He was a work in progress. It just didn't progress I guess the way he had planned or the way some people planned," Valentine said.
Irabu posted a team-leading 16 saves -- the only saves of his major league career -- with Texas in 2002. He then returned to Japan for the 2003 season and enjoyed renewed success, earning a win in the All-Star game, going 13-8 and helping Hanshin win its first league title in 18 years.
Irabu made a comeback in April 2009 in the independent Golden Baseball League, going 5-3 with a 3.58 ERA for the Long Beach Armada. He then returned to Japan and was introduced that August as a member of the Kochi Fighting Dogs, saying, "I have high expectations for myself."
But Irabu also had off-the-field trouble in recent years.
In August 2008, he was arrested in Japan for allegedly assaulting a bartender after drinking 20 mugs of beer. Police said he became angered after his credit card was rejected.
In May 2010, Irabu was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol in Gardena, another Los Angeles suburb. Police said he was stopped after his car drifted outside of traffic lanes and he nearly collided with a parked car.
He posted $5,000 bail but it was not immediately clear whether he was criminally charged.
"I think that he was one of his own worst enemies," Valentine said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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