What if Hideki Irabu had signed with the Padres?

Hideki Irabu, one of the fastest throwers in Japanese baseball history and his leagues greatest strikeout artist, died today in Los Angeles County. The first reports say it looks like a suicide.
For a pitcher who has been the butt of many jokes and a Frank Costanza rant, there suddenly is nothing funny about him. Like Donnie Moore before him, a player who was a source of ridicule suddenly became a tragic figure.
In 1997 he was brought to New York as a newly minted millionaire potential hero and given the key to city by Rudy Guiliani and a spot in the defending World Champion Yankees’ rotation. 11 years later his credit card was declined in a bar in Japan and he got into a brawl.
And today, trying to find work in an independent minor league, he was found dead.
Sitting at my dining room table, I can’t sit and pretend to know all of Irabu’s demons. Clearly anyone who could go through with ending their own life has plenty. But it is impossible to avoid the thought that failing on such a grand scale in New York may have contributed to his downfall. Joe Torre had him on the roster for the 1998 and 1999 post season but used him in a single game over 6 series. He pitched in mop up duty for Roger Clemens’ dreadful Game 3 start in the 1999 ALCS.
I remember being startled when he came out of the bullpen against the Red Sox that day. I forgot he was even on the team.
He became a symbol of a Steinbrenner move to make a backpage splash and tap into the Japanese market instead of improving the team. (Of course if he delivered, Steinbrenner would have taken the credit of being forward thinking.)
And his debut in 1997 was a solid win where he pitched into the 7th. And remember in 1998, he started off as a very effective pitcher. He was the AL Pitcher of the Month for May, 1998. By mid June of 1998, he was 6-1 with a 1.59 ERA and was a big contributor to the Yankees stellar first half. As late as July 20th he had a terrific record (9-3) and a very good ERA (2.86.) A string of 6 bad starts, plus the emergence of El Duque Hernandez, pushed him out of the post season roster.
But his 1998 could hardly be called a total failure. But 1999 was not a good year for him and by 2000 he was an Expo. By 2002 he was a Ranger, his last season in the majors. He pitched in 2009 for the Long Beach Armada of the Golden Baseball League. Former Padres shortstop Garry Templeton was his manager. His teammate was Jose Lima, who passed away last spring.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he played in a smaller market.
The Padres paid the posting fee for Irabu to bring him to America and they owned his signing rights. But, wanting to be on the biggest stage (and have the greatest marketability) he refused to sign with San Diego. He and his agent engineered the trade that sent him to the Bronx.
Had he stayed with the Padres, his fame would not have been as great, but neither would the magnification of his failures. Like the Yankees, the 1997 Padres were coming off a post season berth and had talent.
If he had put up the same numbers with the 1998 Padres as he did with the 1998 Yankees, he would have been beloved by the fans instead of being cursed out.
Remember the ’98 Padres were a terrific team that went on to win the National League pennant. They were not as good as the historic 1998 Yankees, but they had a deep lineup and a tough bullpen.
And their fan base is forgiving. Playing for a large passionate fanbase has its disadvantages. Not being able to hide any flaws is one of them. Trevor Hoffman had many high profile critical game blown saves in his career with the Padres. Had he blown those games in New York, Philadelphia or Boston, he would have been run out of town on a rail. In San Diego they are retiring his number.
I wonder if Irabu had pitched in San Diego, if he would have been able to develop and adapt to America better than in New York, where he was expected to be the next Nolan Ryan right out of the gate.
I wonder if Padres fans could have accepted him for what he was instead of tormenting him for what he wasn’t. 13 wins and an OK 4.06 ERA mixed in with a pitcher of the month award would get a lot more respect in a smaller market gunning for their second ever pennant.
Maybe he pitches well along side Kevin Brown, Andy Ashby, Sterling Hitchcock and Joey Hamilton. Maybe he fares well against the Yankees in the World Series.
Or maybe his demons were just too strong to conquer. Maybe this has nothing to do with bis baseball career.
But seeing how far he fell makes it impossible to wonder. Did he have to perch himself up so high?

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Sully Baseball Salutes… Jimmie Wilson

Jimmie Wilson was a two sport star who became a World Series hero because of bizarre and tragic circumstances.

Chances are you never heard of Jimmie Wilson, the former Cardinals and Phillies catcher. I never heard of him until I stumbled across his story while compiling my latest 25 Man Roster. But he lived a unique albeit brief life that is worth a salute here at Sully Baseball.

The player who was nicknamed “Ace” was a native of Philadelphia and the son of Scottish immigrants. He dropped out of high school to work and by 19 went pro… in soccer.

When I read that, I had the same reaction that you probably had. “They had pro soccer teams in America in the 1910s and 1920s?” Yup, evidently they did.

And here I was thinking that they never played the game in America until Pele joined the Cosmos!

He excelled in soccer, playing for several different leagues, mainly for Philadelphia teams. In 1922, he played in the National Challenge Cup but failed to make it to the Quarterfinals. The tournament is now called The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. I had no idea that playoff is nearly 100 years old.

(Man, soccer sure is taking its sweet time catching on in America!)

He was a two sport player, playing minor league baseball as well. By 1923, the 23 year old Wilson focused solely on baseball and began playing for his hometown Phillies.

The 1923 Phillies were a 104 loss dog of a team who drew less than 3,000 a game. Not 30,000… 3,000.

The Phillies remained terrible between 1923 and 1928. But Wilson hit well his first year and by 1925, had developed into a .328 hitting part time catcher.

During the 1928 season, he was paroled from the purgatory of The Baker Bowl and the Phillies and was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals. The trade occured during a game between the two teams. He supposedly started the game as a Phillie, was taken out and watched the rest in the St. Louis dugout in his new uniform.

As a Cardinal, he became teammates with future Hall of Famers Rabbit Maranville, Jesse Haines, Chick Hafey, Jim Bottomley, Frankie Frisch and Grover Cleveland Alexander.

He was no longer on a team tumbling towards 100 losses. Now he was on a contender who would go on to win the pennant by 2 games over the Giants.

In the 1928 World Series, the Cardinals were manhandled by the Yankees. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined for 7 home runs in the 4 game sweep.

Wilson was held to a 1-11 series. He did get an RBI double in game 2, but the Cardinals were overmatched. But Wilson was now on a contender.

He developed into one of the best all around catchers in the National League, finishing 6th in the 1931 MVP vote and being selected to the 1933 All Star team.

And he played in the 1930 and 1931 World Series for St. Louis. In the ’31 Series, he helped defeat the other home town team of his youth, the Philadelphia A’s, as the Cardinals won the World Series.

After the 1933 season, he returned home to Philadelphia to be the player and manager of the Phillies. It was a disaster. The Phillies finished either last or just out of last place each year he was manager, losing 100 games in 1936. He lasted 5 seasons in control of the Phillies before being let go.

In 1939 Bill McKechnie, his former manager in St. Louis, brought him to Cincinnati where he became a player coach. Wilson only appeared in 4 games as a player as future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi was the catcher. The Reds won the 1939 pennant but were swept by the Yankees in the World Series.

In 1940, Wilson’s playing days looked to be over as he became a full time coach.

Lombardi had an good backup named Willard Hershberger, a former Yankee farmhand who developed into a solid, if light hitting catcher.

Hershberger was a star football player in high school making him, like Wilson, a two sport star. He also seemed to have deep emotional issues stemming from a family tragedy. His father went broke in 1928, predating the crash, and shot himself in the head. An 18 year old Willard discovered the body shortly before he began his professional career.

It took Hershberger 8 years to make the majors but made himself a .300 batter. He was stuck behind a Hall of Famer in Bill Dickey while in the Yankee system and behind Lombardi with the Reds. A finger injury kept Lombardi out of the lineup for a stretch in 1940. Hershberger stepped in ably.

However when the Reds went on a 3 game losing streak in late July, Hershberger put the blame on himself. He felt like his team was blaming him as well and spoke to manager Bill McKechnie about killing himself like his father did.

The two had a private meeting after a game in Boston against the Bees (aka the Braves.) McKechnie seemed to have calmed his fragile catcher down and gave him the day off to collect himself. On August 3rd, Hershberger said he was going to go to the park even if he didn’t play, but he never showed up to Braves Field.

Gabe Paul, the Reds’ traveling secretary who would later build the great Yankee teams of the 1970s, went to the hotel to check if Hershberger was alright. He found Hershberger dead in his bathtub, having slashed his own throat.

Willard Hershberger became the first, and so far only, major leaguer to commit suicide during the season.

The death stunned the Reds emotionally and put them in a bind in terms of personnel. Third string catcher Bill Baker filled in and Ernie Lombardi came back quickly from his injury.

Jimmie Wilson stepped down as a coach and was activated to catch less than two weeks after Hershberger’s death. He started 8 games down the stretch but needed to spell Lombardi in the 1940 World Series against the Tigers.

He started 6 of the 7 games of the World Series, batting .353 in the process.

Wilson singled and scored in the Reds Game 2 win. In game 6 with the Reds on the verge of elimination, Wilson singled and scored a critical insurance run in the 4-0 victory. And in the come from behind 2-1 Game 7 triumph, Wilson collected 2 hits and caught Paul Derringer‘s complete game victory.

The Reds won the 1940 World Series, their first title since the 1919 Series, the same one where the White Sox took a dive.

It was the last game Wilson ever played in. The team dedicated the World Series victory to “Hershie” and gave Willard Hersberger’s mother a World Series share.

The next year Wilson took over the Cubs as manager but had little success. He began growing oranges in Florida when he dropped dead of a heart attack in 1947 at the age of 46.

About a decade later, Ernie Lombardi suffered from intense depression and harbored thoughts of suicide. But unlike his backup, he recovered and lived another two decades.

The 1940 Reds were the only Cincinnati team to win the World Series between the Black Sox scandal and the rise of The Big Red Machine. And Jimmie Wilson coming off of the bench to help heal a great tragedy was a big part of that title.

That’s worth a salute.

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