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Hideki Irabu: The Japanese Curt Flood

By Mike Silva ~ November 11th, 2011. Filed under: Japanese Baseball.

When former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu took his life this past summer the most common theme was the failure and disappointment of his baseball career. Dubbed the “Japanese Nolan Ryan,” Irabu made his debut on July 10th, 1997 and struck out 9 in a 10-3 victory. He made a grand entrance on George Steinbrenner’s private jet, and even received the keys to the city by then Mayor Rudy Giuliani. It wasn’t long thereafter that he struggled, eventually realizing the wrath of Steinbrenner who called him a “fat pussy toad.” Irabu would finish his big league career with a 34-35 record and 5.15 ERA. He would spend the last three years of his career pitching for Montreal and Texas.

Despite the pedestrian record on the field, off the field Irabu had a huge impact. Back in 1969, Curt Flood challenged MLB’s reserve clause which bound a player to a team in perpetuity. Although he lost his challenge in the Supreme Court, the Seitz decision, when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that since pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played for one season without a contract they were entitled to become free agents, eventually nullified the reserve clause. This changed the course of MLB history and allowed the free player movement we see today. Irabu’s dispute with the Chiba Lotte Marines had a similar impact during a time when NPB was reeling from the retirement of Hideo Nomo.

In 1967 MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) signed the United States – Japanese Player Contract Agreement, also known as the “working agreement”, which was basically a hands-off policy. This was in response to San Francisco’s attempt to purchase the contract of Masanori Murakami, who was on loan in their minor league system from the Nankai Hawks. The Giants eventually relented and returned Marakami to the Hawks, but the ground was broken for future Japanese players to come to the United States.

Fast forward nearly 30 years when Hideo Nomo, a pitcher for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, elected to retire from NPB in 1994 and sign with Los Angeles the following season. Nomo would win the Rookie of the Year Award and was awarded a 3-year contract from the Dodgers.

Where does Irabu come into play? In 1997 the San Diego Padres signed a working agreement with the Chiba Lotte Marines, which gave them exclusive signing rights to Irabu. It was well know that Irabu only wanted to play for the Yankees, but the Marines made this nearly impossible. They offered him to the Yanks in exchange for Cecil Fielder knowing the offer would be rejected. His rights were then traded to San Diego, but Irabu refused to cooperate. He thought about playing in NPB until he was a free agent (10 years) or possibly take his case to the US courts. San Diego relented and eventually traded him to the Yankees for Ruben Rivera.

A year later Alfonso Soriano also was unhappy playing with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, and elected to pull a “Nomo” and retire. Bud Selig declared him a free agent in July of 1998, which allowed the Yankees to swoop in and give him a 5-year contract. This was a disturbing trend for NPB and something needed to change in order for there to be some sort of order when it came to player exchanges.

After the ’98 season Bud Selig and NPB Commissioner Hiromori Kawashima signed a new agreement. It required MLB teams to place secret “bids” for NPB players. These bids were transfer fees that are paid as compensation to NPB teams whose star players sign with the MLB. NPB players are also allowed to negotiate with MLB teams over the terms of their new contracts. The agreement is in effect on a year-to-year basis, terminable at the option of either the MLB Commissioner or the NPB Commissioner.

There have been 13 successful postings, with Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka the most successful. Matsuzaka’s bid was in excess of $51 million dollars. There have been rumors that RHP Yu Darvish will be posted this offseason, as well as NPB batting champ, Norichika Aoki (CF).

Would we have seen the free flow of Japanese talent in baseball if not for the Irabu incident? Hard to tell as the game was inevitably going to go global with technology giving team’s the ability to obtain more information. I do think it sped up the process since it came on the heels of Nomo retiring, going to the United States, and winning the Rookie of the Year. If you remember, Nomo was one of the biggest stories in baseball in 1995. Other teams now were interested in finding their own star in the Far East.

Hideki Irabu was a sad tale on the field and personally off the field. He did leave a legacy; one in which he broke down the historical wall that prevented NPB stars from realizing their dream and playing against the best competition in the US. Nomo may have opened the door, but it was Irabu that burst on through and gave others the opportunity to do the same; making a lot of money in the process.


Hideo Nomo in the Hall of Fame? Probably not, but you could make a case. Nomo has 123 wins in the Major Leagues and 78 in Japan, for a total of 201. He is also one of only five players that have ever pitched at least one no-hitter game in both the National League and American League.

When you factor in how Nomo had the courage to thumb his nose at the NPB system and come to the United States when no other Japanese players were in the league that clearly transcends the game and is Hall worthy.

He may not have the stats, but Nomo certainly has some historic moments and transcends the game. Those are two major criteria I have when evaluating a candidate’s qualifications. I am leaning towards no, but there can be some merit to his consideration.

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2 Responses to Hideki Irabu: The Japanese Curt Flood

  1. Chuck

    Under no circumstances should a player’s performance in another league outside the US major leagues be looked at as consideration for the HOF.

    Ichiro has proved himself HOF worthy by his performance with the Mariners, and ONLY his performance in Seattle should be looked at.

    Sorry, but 78 wins in a foreign, Triple A caliber “major league” hardly counts as a HOF accomplishment.

  2. Stu B

    There’s no doubt that Irabu was a trailblazer for Japanese players, but it’s ridiculous to compare him with Flood. Irabu came to the US, played out his career, and made a bunch of money. Flood sat out the entire 1970 season and sacrificed the remainder of his playing career and earning potential in filing his lawsuit against Bowie Kuhn and MLB. Flood made a far greater personal sacrifice.

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