He was known as the "Japanese Nolan Ryan" for how fast he could hurl a ball. But more unflattering descriptions eventually found their way to MLB's Hideki Irabu, leading to a downward spiral that culminated in his 2011 suicide. In his look at Irabu for Sports Illustrated, Ben Reiter plumbs the pitcher's life, including his media-hyped 1997 arrival to NYC, where a nearly $13 million contract with the NY Yankees waited for him. His early performance earned the respect of his teammates and fans, but those raves were short-lived. Soon the smoking, drinking, sushi-binging Irabu started giving up runs and gained a rep for being curt with reporters. What Reiter calls sporadic "tantalizing runs of brilliance" still only resulted in a "just above average" performance with the Yankees; his last disastrous game with them was in 1999.
Irabu had short stints with other teams, then tried his hand at business ventures that never took off. He started drinking more and got into trouble with the law; his wife and two daughters left their home soon before he died. But perhaps the most poignant part of Reiter's piece is his revelation of a 76-year-old military vet named Steve Thompson. Irabu, it turns out, was Thompson's son, born after Thompson had an affair with a Japanese waitress while stationed on Okinawa in the late '60s. Irabu had insisted on playing for the high-profile Yankees when he came to the US in the hopes his biological dad would come find him—and Thompson eventually did. But their relationship never blossomed, due to the language barrier and because "too much life had happened." When Thompson heard about his only child's death, he wept by himself for "several hours," Reiter notes. Read the full story here. (Read more Longform stories.)