Upon hearing the news of the Hideki Irabu’s death today by suicide, I was sad that he felt life wasn’t worth living anymore. And, I thought back to his arrival in the United States 14 years ago, and a unique spectacle in a minor league town.
The summer of 1997 in Rochester, NY provided enough thrills for me to call it my favorite baseball season as a minor league broadcaster.
I was there to call the first game in Frontier Field history. What a beautiful new ballpark, filled with passionate fans.
I witnessed one of the longest homers I’ve ever seen as Tim Laker of the Red Wings hit one over the left field scoreboard.
I stayed up late (with a few others) to broadcast a game that started at 10:30 pm after a long rain delay and ended at around 1:30 am in grand fashion. With the score tied in the 9th inning that night, the Toledo Mud Hens scored five runs in the top half of the frame. The Red Wings answered with six runs in the bottom of the 9th to win it.
It was a championship season that included a spectacular catch by P.J. Forbes in the 9th inning of the clinching game for the Red Wings.
There’s no doubt that it was a magical year.
But, there was one game that always stood out to me because of the fan reaction. “The Irabu Game.” Hideki Irabu made June 30, 1997 a special night at Frontier Field. As soon as the announcement was made that Irabu would be making his Triple-A debut as the starting pitcher for the Columbus Clippers (the Yankees International League affliliate) in Rochester, the local hype began.
Irabu was scheduled to make his major league debut with the Yankees in 11 days. He came to town lugging massive expectations after signing a $12.8 million dollar deal with New York upon arriving from Japan.
Frontier Field was packed with more fans (13,485) than I thought the place could hold. The atmosphere was electric. As Lisa Olson wrote in the New York Daily News, “Standing-room-only seats sold out hours before game time, vendors hawked Irabu Juice billed as an exotic blend of freshly brewed green teas, herbs and fruit concentrate and a sushi bar set up camp next to the hot-dog stand.”
When Irabu took the mound there was a buzz unlike any that I had ever experienced in baseball. As he warmed up I saw a lot of fans donning Yankees caps and jerseys. I wondered how many of these fans would be rooting for the Red Wings. I had my answer right away in the first inning. When the Red Wings knocked a few base hits, the crowd immediately exploded. I remember a thunderous roar when Aaron Ledesma drilled a single to center. I felt goose bumps in that inning, which featured three stolen bases.
In five innings, Irabu allowed four runs (three earned) on eight hits. He settled down before he reached his 90-pitch limit, at one point striking out three straight Red Wings. That gave the Yankees fans a reason to cheer and be optimistic.
It was a great night for everyone in attendance, but it sent Irabu on his way to a mediocre career. He had a special major league debut with New York when he struck out four of the first six Tigers that he faced. However, he never fulfilled his expectations, finishing with a 34-35 record and a 5.15 ERA with the Yankees, Expos and Rangers.
Irabu is gone, but he’ll never be forgotten, in Japan, New York and even Rochester.Share