By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Former Major League Baseball pitcher Hideki Irabu, who started for the New York Yankees for three seasons in the late 1990s, was found dead at his Los Angeles-area home of an apparent suicide, the coroner's office said on Thursday.
Irabu, 42, one of the first players to join the major leagues from the Japanese leagues, was discovered at his home in Rancho Palo Verde late Wednesday afternoon by a friend, said Ed Winter, the assistant chief coroner for Los Angeles County.
"The case is being investigated as a suicide," Winter said, adding that an autopsy had yet to be performed. He declined to disclose any further details about the circumstances of Irabu's death.
The celebrity news website TMZ.com cited an unnamed law enforcement source as saying it appeared Irabu, who was famously disparaged for his weight by the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, had hanged himself.
Irabu pitched six seasons in the major leagues with mixed success, the first three as a starting pitcher with the New York Yankees from 1997 to 1999.
He was traded to the Montreal Expos in 2000 and spent his final season in 2002 with the Texas Rangers, who switched him to the closer's role. He compiled a career record of 34-35 with a career earned run average of 5.15, and also saved 16 games.
The hard-throwing right-hander was purchased by the San Diego Padres from the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan's Pacific League in January 1997. But he said he only wanted to pitch Major League Baseball for the New York Yankees, and the Padres eventually shipped him as part of a trade in May 1997.
The Yankees signed him to a $12.8 million, four-year contract, and after a brief stint in the minors put him into their starting rotation.
Irabu was best remembered for incurring the wrath of Steinbrenner after a spring training game in 1999 following his best big league season, in which he posted a 13-9 record.
The volatile Yankees owner, who had criticized the beefy Irabu for being overweight, became enraged after the pitcher failed to cover first base on a ground ball during the exhibition game and called him a "fat ... toad."
In 2009, Irabu came out of retirement and joined the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden Baseball League. He posted a 5-3 record in 10 starts, with an ERA of 3.58 and said he intended to return to the Japanese professional leagues.
He was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving on May 17, 2010, in Redondo Beach, California.
(Additional reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Greg McCune)