Former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu found dead

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - Hideki Irabu joined the New York Yankees 14 years ago in a swell of international excitement. The quirky, flamethrowing Japanese right-hander seemed destined to become a pioneering star for American baseball’s marquee franchise.

Irabu never reached those enormous expectations, and his career spiraled. On Wednesday, the 42-year-old was found dead, an apparent suicide in a home in Rancho Palos Verdes, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb.

“He was a world-class pitcher,” said former major league manager Bobby Valentine, who managed Irabu in Japan in 1995. “When Nolan Ryan saw him, he said he had never seen anything like it. There were just some days when he was as good a pitcher as I had ever seen. A fabulous arm.”

Los Angeles County coroner’s official Ed Winter said his office is investigating Irabu’s death as a suicide, revealing no additional circumstances. An autopsy will be performed Friday or Saturday.

Irabu was billed as the Japanese version of Ryan when he arrived in the United States in 1997, a hard-throwing starter with a 98-mph fastball who excelled as a strikeout specialist _ an almost unfair addition to the defending World Series champions.

After an impressive debut with the Yankees that summer, he was a disappointment to the Yankees and himself during three seasons in the Bronx. Instead, he was forever tagged with a label from late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who called him a “fat … toad” after Irabu failed to cover first base during an exhibition game.

Irabu finished 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA in his tenure with the Yankees, two years in Montreal and a final season in the Texas bullpen in 2002. He was a member of two Yankees teams that won the World Series, but his only postseason action was a single relief appearance in the 1999 AL championship series when Boston tagged him for 13 hits.

Irabu pitched in an American independent league and signed with a Japanese team in recent years while living with his family in Southern California. Neighbors believe Irabu had grown despondent recently because of a split with his wife.

Mary Feuerlicht said she was about to go pick up her son on Wednesday morning when a man came running down the driveway from Irabu’s large two-story home, perched atop a hill with views of the harbor and downtown Los Angeles, pleading with her to call police.

Feuerlicht said she was later told by sheriff’s deputies and the man who asked her for help that Irabu’s wife had left him, taking their two young daughters. She hadn’t seen Irabu’s wife and children for two months, but said the family regularly left town for the summer.

“When I saw him for the past month or so he seemed kind of down,” she said. “He wasn’t kind of perky like I’ve seen him before.”

Ichiro Sakashita, who identified himself as Irabu’s friend, arrived late Thursday to place huge bouquets of flowers in front of the former player’s home. Sakashita said Irabu wanted to become a baseball coach and stay involved with the sport after his retirement, but ultimately decided to spend time with his family.

Sakashita said Irabu and his wife had been separated for about a month.

“He decided to go to heaven,” he said. “So we must accept that.”

Irabu’s death is the second apparent suicide by a sports figure this week. Police say American Olympic freestyle skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson shot himself in a Utah canyon on Monday.

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