As interest in Major League Baseball in Japan grows exponentially with each passing day, it could be easy to forget the man who is most responsible for the current tidal wave of attention the game in North America is enjoying here.
Except for one small fact — he won’t let you.
With new talent making the journey across the Pacific each season, and playing to rave reviews, the splash that Hideo Nomo made in 1995 when he left Japan to play in the major leagues does seem long ago.
But the veteran pitcher just continues to amaze, so much so that he is now enjoying a renaissance in the eyes of the Japanese media, not to mention major league hitters.
When he tossed his second career no-hitter on April 4 against the Baltimore Orioles, Nomo assured his entrance to the Baseball Hall of Fame. As if that wasn’t enough, he nearly repeated the feat a few weeks later for the Boston Red Sox.
Then to top it off, he became the first pitcher to plunk Ichiro Suzuki during the regular season on May 2. Why do I think when he hit Ichiro, it was not altogether accidental?
Why do I think it may have been a not-so-subtle reminder to the new phenom? A sort of “Just remember why you are here — because of me!” message.
We all know the story of how a few dozen journalists bid Nomo farewell when he departed from Narita Airport in February of 1995 to join the Los Angeles Dodgers and how after winning the National League Rookie of the Year award, he returned in the fall to Japan to find a media contingent of several hundred awaiting him.
But such is fame, especially in the lightweight world of the Japanese journalist, who is more often concerned about not offending anybody than getting the real story.
What has made Nomo, now 32, different, is that despite being Japanese, he has refused to act like one at nearly every turn. Let’s just look at a few examples:
* In the fall of 1994, he hired Don Nomura (who was the agent for Mac Suzuki) to represent him. He did this despite the fact that, at the time, Japanese players were prevented from having agents.
* He told Nomura, “I want to play in the major leagues” and so the wily agent set about finding how to make it happen. Nomura hired Los Angeles sports attorney Arn Tellem to look at Nomo’s standard Japanese player contract and asked him to find out if there was a loophole for Nomo to get out. Sure enough, Tellem — who is pretty wily himself — did. “He will have to retire from the Kintetsu Buffaloes, then he can be a free agent.”
* After retiring from the Buffaloes, Nomo became a free agent and, following a brief tour of a few major league teams, signed with the Dodgers and enjoyed great success for his first two seasons.
* Despite being surrounded by coworkers who spoke English, Nomo refused to become conversational in the language, instead using a translator, which he continues to do to this day.
* Nomo accepted some endorsement offers, but turned down many more which could have made him very wealthy.
Again and again, Nomo has refused to be compliant.
When he was going through that rough stretch between late 1997 (when his form started to fall off with the Dodgers) and mid-1999 (when he regained it with the Milwaukee Brewers), Nomo could have easily thrown in the towel and returned to Japan to live happily ever after as a hero.
Yet he forged on, because he has the one quality that most Japanese athletes lack — guts.
How cheeky is this guy? Check this story out.
In August of 1995, when the San Francisco Giants were honoring Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese to play Major League Baseball (1964-65), on the 30th anniversary of his last season, Nomo refused to pose with Murakami for what would have been historic pictures at home plate before a Giants-Dodgers game at Candlestick Park, despite the clamoring of the assembled Japanese and U.S. media. Why? Because when he was deciding which major-league team he would sign with at the beginning of 1995, Nomo was upset that Murakami — in his role as a baseball analyst — had said, “If Nomo keeps relying on his agent to do everything for him, he will be far from a major leaguer.”
So much for the senpai-kohai relationship between Japan’s first two major-leaguers. Not only did he refuse to take the photos, he then went out and beat the Giants on a one-hitter.
Another tale worth noting is how Nomo refused to speak to any Mainichi Shimbun reporters when he played for the MLB team on the All-Star tour against Japan here in 1996. Why?
Because the president of the Buffaloes had made a very disparaging remark about Nomo’s family to reporters, and the Mainichi Shimbun was the only paper that carried it.
You gotta love this guy. Not only does he disrespect his elders, he has a long memory and refuses to let bygones be bygones.
I think this is because Nomo is genuine.
Why should he do something he doesn’t want to?
If he did it would be insincere. So many people in this country are so worried about offending others that they can’t even do their jobs.
I’ll take the rebel with some guts any day over somebody just willing to follow the flock. Say what you want about Nomo, but remember one thing — he has done it his way.
Every time I think of Nomo, I can’t help but recall something legendary former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight once said after being accused of offending somebody:
“After I die and my time on Earth has passed, I ask they bury me upside down, so my critics can kiss my ass.”