Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Great Expectations

("First Looks and Lasting Impressions of Athletes' Debuts")

July 17, 1997.  I was one of almost 52,000 fans in the stands for the game at the Stadium, a number twice the normal attendance for a weekday encounter. On the mound was the flamethrower from Japan, the one who demanded that he play for the famed home team, the New York Yankees.

Draped over the stands that day were signs welcoming what most expected was the newest in the pantheon of legends of this storied franchise.  Hideki Irabu  was sure to be the next Nolan Ryan, only more. He threw almost 100 pitches in his debut, lasting one out less than 7 innings. The record shows that he gave up 2 runs and 5 hits, and struck out 9. But what I most remember were the faces in the crowd, many so different than I was used to seeing. And how, once Irabu left the game, so did thousands upon thousands who were there not for the outcome between the teams but for the debut of their hero.

It turned out to be more mirage than miracle. Irabu would last only a few seasons with the team, and was most remembered for once being called a "fat toad" by the less than subtle owner, George Steinbrenner.

Irabu's life would end in tragedy in 2011, a suicide victim.   Maybe the weight of unfulfilled expectations contributed to his demise. But for one magical moment in the early summer sixteen years ago, he owned New York.

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