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Nomo blazed trail, helped mend fences with move

by Robert Whiting

First in a four-part series

The history of the Japan-America baseball relationship can be divided into two eras: Pre-Nomo and Post-Nomo.

Younger readers may find it difficult to believe but before Hideo Nomo went to the United States to become a star for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, most Americans did not even know baseball was played in Japan. Those few who did know about the Japanese game viewed it with a kind of bemused condescension.

To them, it was a glorified minor league, a place for aging, over-the hill MLB stars past their prime to go to get one last big contract and a place for big league teams to tour in the offseason and make some extra money. That was all.

But everything changed when Nomo, one of the best pitchers in the Japanese professional baseball leagues migrated to the U.S. following the 1994 season by means of a little-known loophole in the Uniform Players Contract, which had heretofore kept homegrown stars in a state of perpetual serfdom.

Employing an unusual pitching style: a tornado — or corkscrew, as some called it — windup, to deliver blinding fastballs and hard breaking forkballs, he became the hottest new thing in the majors.

By the end of May in his first season in North America, Nomo was leading the National League in strikeouts. In June, he was chosen Pitcher of the Month and set a Dodger rookie record when he fanned 16 Pirates in Pittsburgh. In July, with a record of 6-1 and an ERA of 2.79, he was the NL’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.

Said Major League Baseball’s best hitter at the time, home-run king Barry Bonds, “I’ve never seen a pitcher quite like him. It is impossible to pick up the ball with that bizarre motion. You have no idea what’s coming.”

In the process, a phenomenon called “Nomomania” erupted. Attendance at Dodger Stadium increased by thousands whenever Nomo started, thanks to the presence of spectators drawn from the L.A. area’s large Asian-American population, and others flown in directly from Japan on special baseball tours.

By mid-season there were so many Japanese at Dodger Stadium, that the team opened a Japanese restaurant in the park to accommodate them all and staff workers found themselves practicing nihongo.

In the Dodger souvenir shop, Nomo jerseys, caps and T-shirts flew off the shelves. When Nomo toed the mound, the crowd could often be heard chanting “Hideo, Hideo, Hideo” in rhythmic unison.

Venerable announcer Vin Scully, who has been broadcasting games since 1955, called Nomo “the most exciting player to join the Dodgers in a generation.”

More important perhaps was Nomo’s popularity on the road. The crowds he drew in other National League cities helped revive MLB attendance, which had slid south in the wake of a strike which forced the cancellation of the last third of the 1994 season, as well as the playoffs and the World Series.

The dispute was not resolved until April of ’95, and the American fan was still angry about it, disgusted that super-rich ballplayers and billionaire owners could not decide how to divide their considerable spoils. Many had promised to boycott the games once they started up again. But Nomo, was so new, so refreshing, that he made large numbers change their minds and return to the ballpark.

As Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda put it, “It’s not too much to say that he saved Major League Baseball.”

At the same time, Nomo helped create a vast new market for the MLB in Japan. Japan was a country that had long measured itself against the U.S. and the fact that a Japanese player was putting powerful American batters to shame did wonders for the country’s self-esteem.

All of Nomo’s games were telecast live back home and shown on large screens across the nation to huge audiences, the scene in Japan recalled the days of of Rikidozan, a sumoist turned professional wrestler who jump-started early TV sales in the country with his thrilling (though choreographed) victories over much larger American pro wrestlers visiting from America, and helped alleviate a complex brought about by defeat in war and the subsequent occupation of the country by U.S. forces.

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Nomo was continually featured in the sport dailies and weekly magazines, as well as the TV variety and news shows, reported on by a horde of Japanese reporters who followed his every step off the field, (even camping outside his L.A. home, hiding in the bushes and sifting through his garbage).

The Prime Minister of Japan hailed him as a national treasure. It was a remarkable turnaround, given that only months earlier, Nomo had been criticized heavily for deserting his team and his country. Ironically, Nomo received far more attention as a major leaguer than he ever had playing for the lowly Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes, who toiled before sparse crowds and hardly ever appeared on nationwide television.

One could even credit Nomo for helping to repair U.S.-Japan relations, which had been in tatters because of trade disputes.

Not so long before Nomo had arrived in America, the relationship was at a 40-year low. The speaker of the Japanese parliament had labeled Americans “uneducated and illiterate,” while American congressmen had been railing at Japan over “unfair trade practices” and its fanatical corporate warriors.

A group of U.S. congressmen had even smashed a Japanese car to pieces on the Capitol lawn. But the love affair of MLB fans with Nomo helped to dissipate the acrimony between the two countries.

Nomo was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time Asia and the subject of more than one TV documentary.

The New York Times noted with approval a shift in the mood in Japan. “Nomo’s arrival in MLB,” wrote that prestigious newspaper, “signifies that the Japanese penchant for closed door exclusivity is receding.”

The Asahi Shimbun called Nomo’s success a “catharsis” for Japanese who were weary of the constant carping of the U.S. government over trade.

Nomo’s appearance in the 1995 All-Star Game in Arlington, Texas, was an historically significant moment, coming as it did almost exactly a half-century after the end of the Pacific War between Japan and the United States, and no one watching could escape its significance. A player from Japan had emerged to reignite the national pastime in a way that perhaps no native-born American could have, given the bitter emotions that remained over the strike.

He brought back all the feelings that baseball players used to inspire. He was modest, humble, shy, hardworking and a joy to watch on the field. That last sentence could have been used to describe a Christy Mathewson, Lou Gehrig or a Joe DiMaggio. It made Americans and Japanese stop and contemplate baseball’s role in cross-cultural relations.

All in all, an estimated 26 million people watched the game on TV in North America, along with an estimated 15 million fans in Japan, many of them standing outside in a light morning rain, peering up at giant outdoor TV screens.

What Nomo meant to the people of Japan was quite clear. But what he meant to people of Japanese ancestry living in America was also important.

Consider what Gen Sueyoshi, a Japanese who grew up in the States and now runs popular Tokyo-based sports website yakyubaka.com had to say about his experiences:

“I didn’t really have any role models growing up. I couldn’t just flip on the TV and see other Asians, let alone Japanese people, finding success in dramas or movies or sports.

“The American media tended to portray Asians as silly tourists pointing their cameras at everything. When I was growing up, the common stereotype of Asians was that they were good at math (which I was awful at), were good at playing the violin (which I hated), were rich (which my family was not), and were good at martial arts (which I wasn’t).

“I remember watching ‘Terminator 2′ (1991) for the first time and seeing how they used Japanese tourists as a gag. I also remember watching ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ (1984) and being a little embarrassed by the Japanese character (Takeshi).

“My dad loves old films, so I was also exposed to characters like the (bucktoothed) Mr. Yunioshi from ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and Cato Fong from the ‘Pink Panther’ series. There’s also Mr. Sulu from the ‘Star Trek’ series, but his character wasn’t as dynamic (at least not for a child) as Captain Kirk or Spock.

“Without any strong Asian personalities in the public view, I always felt inferior, like there wasn’t any room for successful Asians in the U.S. I think that feeling grew stronger over time.

“In high school, I remember there were times I just wanted to cut away from my Japanese background. And when I got to college, I realized I was doing my best to avoid other Asians — it was as if I was embarrassed to even be seen with other Asians. The trade conflict between the U.S. and Japan did not help matters.

“But then along came Nomo and Nomomania and everything changed. I had been a fan of Nomo’s since I saw him pitch in Japan on TV a few years earlier.

“Interestingly enough, I had actually wondered how he would fare against MLB hitters even before he crossed the ocean. That rookie year back in 1995, I remember trying to catch as many games as I could on TV. And it was amazing to see how the fans reacted to him.

“Even my friends who weren’t interested in baseball had heard of him. And these were friends that hardly ever cracked open the sports section of a newspaper or watched highlights on TV.”

Nomo finished the ’95 season with a record of 13-6, an ERA of 2.54 and 236 strikeouts, which led the National League. He helped the Dodgers make the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1988 and also won the NL Rookie of the Year honors.

Of course, not all was sweetness and light. Occasionally, nationalism and even prejudice reared its ugly head.

MIT professor David Friedman openly castigated Japanese expatriates in America and the media back home in Japan for focusing on Nomo as a symbol of national validation and the superiority of the Japanese, instead of just celebrating the beauty of watching first-class baseball.

Japanese critics, for their part, pointed to occasional demonstrations of anti-Japanese feeling such as occurred during a Dodgers-Mets game, on May 23 at Shea Stadium when Nomo pitched. It was estimated that one-fourth of the spectators in the crowd of 19,000 in attendance that day were Japanese nationals, not to mention the 100 or more reporters from Japan who had flown to New York for the game.

Many of the Japanese fans were wearing Dodger caps and shirts, waving Japan flags and holding up Nomo and “K” (strikeout) signs. In response, a group of mostly white men and some white women began chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A,” Some of them flashed the middle finger salute. At one point a fight broke out between two white men and two Japanese men, which was stopped by stadium security.

Following the game, New York Mets pitcher John Franco provided a memorable example of racial insensitivity, when, referring to Nomo, he asked a reporter for the New York Post, “What did you think of Ho Chi Minh? Not as good as the hype, huh?”

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But Nomo remained detached from it all. He had received death threats from American fans — crude letters saying “Go Home, Jap. We don’t need your kind here” as well as poison pen missives from Japanese back home who were still angry over his defection.

He simply ignored them. “There are stupid people everywhere,” he shrugged.

Among his teammates, Nomo was something of a lone wolf and a cipher. He would arrive at the park early, do his stretching, work on his delivery, either in the bullpen or weight room, and then retreat to his locker, staring straight ahead, listening to CDs through earphones (pop star Motoharu Sano was a favorite) and reading Japanese newspapers.

American reporters lined up to interview him but were frustrated by his unwillingness or inability to say anything more than a few perfunctory words. Sometimes all they got was a grunt.

Eventually, they would give up attending Nomo’s post-game press conferences, leaving only the horde of Japanese reporters, because he never said anything worth reporting.

American journalist Lew Simons of the Knight-Ridder News Service, was dispatched to fly to Nomo’s hometown of Osaka to find out what was the matter with the Dodger import.

Why was Nomo so damned quiet? Simons wanted to know. Nomo’s parents told him that Nomo had always been like that and who knows why.

Said Nomo’s mother, Kayoko, “He was always a child of very few words. I don’t recall ever having any long conversations with him.”

She added the startling piece of information that it was only after Nomo made the All-Star team that he called his parents from the States for the first time.

Simons was also stunned to discover that Nomo’s parents were not among the hundreds of thousands of people in Japan watching Nomo start the All-Star Game. Nomo’s mother and father went to work at their respective jobs — Nomo’s father at an Osaka post office, his mother, a part-time cashier, at a supermarket.

Still, when all was said and done, thanks solely to the actions of the monosyllabic Nomo, the U.S.-Japan baseball equation had changed significantly by the end of the 1995 season.

MLB executives had come to realize that the NPB had more to offer than they had originally thought and began actively recruiting Japanese stars.

At the same time, by virtue of Nomo’s efforts to escape the chains that bound him to Japan (which will be detailed in Part II of this series), the stranglehold that the NPB owners had long had on their players slowly began to loosen and many of Japan’s top players would defect — including its best hitter (Ichiro Suzuki), its best slugger (Hideki Matsui) and one of its best pitchers (Daisuke Matsuzaka), among others.

Thanks to Nomo, the act of going to the MLB would no longer be considered traitorous. It would in fact become the thing to do.