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Tireless work ethic earned Nomo respect in majors

by Robert Whiting

Third in a four-part series

Hideo Nomo’s most significant accomplishment may have been making the Japanese game respectable in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Few Major League Baseball executives were interested when agent Don Nomura began to shop him to teams in North America. Most of them thought Japanese baseball Triple-A level.

After a tryout arranged for Nomo with Seattle, before the 1995 season, the then-manager of the Mariners, Lou Piniella, flatly rejected him, saying: “He will never make it in the major leagues . . . especially with that windup.”

Even Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, who eventually signed Nomo to a modest contract, was among the dubious.

“Frankly,” he said, “I didn’t expect that much from him. We all thought, who is this guy?”

Sportswriter Bob Klapisch acknowledged the general mind-set when, following Nomo’s debut game in early May 1995 in which he pitched five shutout innings versus the San Francisco Giants, he wrote: “Admit it. Japanese baseball is a joke to you, isn’t it? It is played in microscopic stadiums, it is populated with sub-170-pound (77-kg) players, none who can throw harder than 80 mph (128 kph). Go ahead, be honest; You’re an American baseball supremacist, but last week (when the Japanese Hideo Nomo pitched) should have served as an international wakeup call to you.”

Nomo’s historic first season spawned a raft of magazine articles, books and TV programs about his accomplishments in both Japan and America, as well as a song written about him by Marvin Hamslich entitled “There’s No One Like Nomo,” and a special mention in the Jim Carrey movie, “Liar Liar.”

However, Nomo’s second year was perhaps even more dramatic. He won 16 games against 11 losses, struck out 234 batters, logged an ERA of 3.19 and finished fourth in the balloting for the Cy Young Award.

The highlight of his season was a pitching performance that some said ranked with the best ever — a no-hitter on Sept. 17, 1996, against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver, which Nomo accomplished despite having to face some daunting obstacles.

One of those obstacles was the park. Coors Field, which had been completed in 1995, was undoubtedly one of the nicest places to watch a baseball game in the world.

The air was cool in the summer and the upper stands offered an incomparable view of the Rocky Mountains off in the distant. At sunset on a clear day, the scene was heart-stoppingly beautiful.

However, it was commonly agreed by just about everyone in MLB at that time, that Coors Field was a terrible pitcher’s park. Denver was situated a mile above sea level and the air was so thin that breaking pitches didn’t break and batted balls traveled farther.

Home runs still flew out of Coors Field at an alarming rate, earning it the nickname “Coors Canaveral” after the famous spacecraft launching pad in Florida.

When Nomo took the mound that September evening, with the Dodgers fighting for a postseason playoff spot, he faced an offensive juggernaut that featured some of the best hitters in the majors at the time.

Ellis Burks, Andres Galarraga and Vinny Castilla, would all hit 40 or more home runs that year, while Dante Bichette would hit 31 homers and drive in an incredible total of 141 runs.

Then there was the weather. It was a rainy, chilly night and the start of the game was delayed until 8:45 p.m. A light, but steady, drizzle blown across the field by the wind, continued throughout the game.

The field became so muddy that heavy doses of sand had to be applied around the pitcher’s mound. Conditions around the pitching rubber were so bad that Nomo was forced to abandon his famous “Tornado windup,” and pitch from a reduced motion.

Moreover it was so cold that gripping the ball was problematic. The umpires wore gloves to keep their hands warm, fielders blew on their hands and players in the dugout scrunched together for warmth.

At one point, play had to be halted for half an hour. It was football weather, not an evening for baseball at all.

Nomo, who had spent the pre-game wait in the clubhouse, playing solitaire with headphones on, struggled early on in the miserable conditions, walking men in the first, second and fourth innings. He was constantly scraping mud of his spikes.

Then, somehow, as the innings piled up, Nomo seemed to get stronger. He allowed just one baserunner after the fourth inning.

In the ninth, the Dodgers sent eight batters to the plate and scored three runs. Nomo sat with his hands wrapped in towels to keep warm, and waited for 26 minutes.

He finished the job in style in the bottom of the inning, striking out Burks with his trademark forkball.

Nomo’s final pitching line read this way: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 4 BB and 8 K in a 9-0 win.

Said Dodgers manager Bill Russell, “I would put that game among the greatest pitching performances in history. There have been other no-hitters, but this one is special — in the middle of a pennant race, at this ballpark in these conditions? I couldn’t believe he was doing that. A no-hitter is simply unbelievable.”

Said Nomo’s catcher Mike Piazza, “Nomo should be canonized on the spot.”

* * * * *

One could argue that Nomo was the most dominating pitcher in the MLB during his first two years, as well as perhaps its hardest worker. He set an MLB record by compiling 500 strikeouts in his first 445 innings.

Baseball executives, who by now unanimously agreed he was the real thing, began to look for more players like him.

Their search turned up a succession of players from Japan, including Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Hideki Irabu, Masato Yoshii and Kazuhiro Sasaki, who experienced varying degrees of success.

Hasegawa became one of the top relievers in the United States, while Irabu became known as the “fat toad.”

In terms of statistical excellence, cultural impact and popularity, the flashy, sunglassed Ichiro Suzuki was particularly impressive. The Seattle Mariners outfielder has logged a record 10 consecutive seasons of 200 hits or more and broke an 81-year old record when he smacked 262 hits in a single season.

Ichiro was voted into the AL’s starting lineup for the All-Star Game in each of the past 10 seasons.

Hideki Matsui, aka Godzilla, was regarded as one of the best clutch hitters in MLB and won a World Series MVP in 2009, which caused The New York Times to gush “It (Matsui’s performance) put a Japanese player and the Japanese game on the American baseball map more firmly than any compatriot’s performance did.” Both became cultural icons in the U.S. in the process.

The average American couldn’t identify the Japanese Emperor or the prime minister, or anything else about Japan. But by 2003, he (or she) certainly knew the names Ichiro, Godzilla and Nomo.

Despite cultural differences — the language barrier, food, baseball etiquette regarding brushback pitches and victory poses — the benefits of playing Major League Baseball were obvious to Japanese who went there, beginning with the new validation of self-worth and pleasures of the looser, freer major league system, where for the first time Japanese players had a real say in determining their practice routines as well as in negotiating their salaries.

As Nomo put it, “It’s a great feeling to be responsible for yourself and to be free to be yourself. In Japan, you’re treated like a child.”

Nomo began to weaken in 1997 when he logged a 14-12 record with an ERA of 4.25 and fell even further the next year when he slipped to a mark of 2-7, 5.03 in the first half of the 1998 season.

For the first time in Nomo’s MLB career, one could actually hear boos in some games he pitched at Chavez Ravine and attendance at games he pitched fell off. The Dodgers drew 22 percent fewer fans for Nomo’s starts than others.

By mid-season, Nomo was dispatched to the New York Mets, where his decline continued. He finished with marks of 6-12 and 4.92.

New York Daily News reporter T.J. Quinn wrote, “Nomo walks too many batters and he relies on only two pitches, one of which is a poor excuse for a fastball. What’s more, he is a lousy interview and he has no sense of humor.

“It’s time to get rid of him. Trade him for anyone. Anyone who owns a glove. Or put him on waivers and give him his unconditional release. But just get rid of him as soon as possible.”

But Nomo, who suffered from tendinitis, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his elbow and managed to right himself. He developed a curveball to complement his other pitches and became more of a finesse pitcher.

Playing for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1999, Nomo won 12 games, lost 8 and compiled an ERA of 4.54, and then moved to the Detroit Tigers for the 2000 season, where he became the first Japanese to pitch Opening Day, and put up numbers of 8-12 and an ERA of 4.74 for a team that barely finished out of last place.

By the time Ichiro made his Mariners debut in 2001, Nomo had moved to Boston and interest in him had almost disappeared. As Boston Globe writer Gordon Edes put it, “Nomomania was as passe as hula hoops and eight track cassettes.”

It was as if Nomo had dropped off the face of the earth. Whereas there were 150 people from the Japanese media who covered Ichiro’s first game in Seattle, only one Japanese reporter showed up on the other side of the continent to cover Nomo’s first start as a member of the Red Sox.

However, Nomo quickly corrected this imbalance and reclaimed the spotlight by pitching a no-hitter in Baltimore against the Orioles, winning 3-0 and becoming the fourth pitcher to throw a no-hitter in both leagues.

The Hochi Shimbun, the lone Japanese publication that had bothered to send a reporter to the Sox game, somehow managed to have a special edition out on the streets in Tokyo, mere hours after the game finished around noon Japan time.

For Nomo’s next start, the stands in Boston were filled with Japanese waving placards with kanji, katakana and hiragana on them, reading “Nomo Domo,” “Domo Nomo” and “Nomo No-No.”

When Nomo faced Ichiro and the Mariners on May 2, 2001 at Safeco Field in Seattle, time seemed to stop on the streets of Tokyo. It was in the midst of Golden Week and an estimated 20 million Japanese fans tuned in to see the live broadcast, even though it was midday in Japan.

The Yomiuri Giants, by contrast, drew a viewing audience of only 12 million for their Central League game. In Seattle, 50 Japanese reporters had crammed themselves into the Safeco Field press box.

Pancho Ito, the famed P.L. official and national baseball commentator, called it the second most important event he had ever covered.

The first?

Nomo’s debut for the Dodgers in 1995.

Ichiro was hitting .333 going into the game, but Nomo shut him down completely. Nomo made an emphatic statement in the fifth when he hit Ichiro in the back with a fastball thrown as hard as he could, the pitch landing exactly between the numbers “5″ and “1″ on the Seattle whiz’s uniform and producing a loud, painful thud.

It was clearly not an accident, but rather a demonstration of just who was boss.

Nomo finished the season with an 13-10 record, an ERA of 4.50 and struck out 220 to top the AL. Annoyed that Red Sox officials were taking their time in discussing a new contract for the following season, Nomo and Nomura abruptly terminated talks and announced they were heading back to Los Angeles. There Nomo would have two more outstanding years.

* * * * *

In 2002, Nomo had a record of 16 wins and 6 losses and an ERA of 3.39. His fastball still had some of its old zip as he fanned 193 batters and walked 101.

Dodgers pitching Jim Colborn, himself a former 20-game winner with Milwaukee, was so impressed with the Nomo’s pitching over the last four months of the season, that he compared him to an artistic genius.

Said Colborn, “Nomo is a wonder. From an experienced professional’s point of view, it’s a pure treat to watch guys like him do their craft. It is like an art critic having a chance to go back in time and see some of the great masters like Rembrandt or Van Gogh work on their paintings. For that reason, I enjoy it every time that he pitches.”

Time did not make Nomo any more communicative. Outside the foul lines, Nomo remained his usual bland, unrevealing, often maddening, self.

Players would walk past his locker and offer a kind word or a pat on the shoulder, and more often than not were met with a solemn nod.

Dodgers infielder Brian Jordan opined, with some frustration, that Nomo was one of the “quietest baseball players” he had ever met.

Dodgers star Eric Karros estimated that Nomo spoke only a total of 20 words to him in the four seasons they were teammates.

But if the Dodgers were not ecstatic about Nomo’s stoic personality, they, to a man, agreed that he deserved his rightful place among baseball’s best pitchers. He set an example for others on the team with his tireless work ethic and his intense competitive attitude.

He consistently proved himself to be a perfectionist, a player with ultra-high standards for himself and one who had difficulty tolerating any kind of failure.

Nomo pitched the Dodgers’ Opening Day game in 2003, throwing a shutout against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He went on to compile a 16-13 record with a solid ERA of 3.09, striking out 177 batters.

In September, however, he developed an inflammation of his rotator cuff. He slumped to 4-11 the following season and an ERA of 8.25.

He spent part of the next season with Tampa Bay, stopping long enough to get his 200th win, combining his totals in Japan with the MLB, before being banished to the minor leagues and winding up in Venezuela.

Everyone thought he was finished, but he somehow clawed his way back and managed to get a tryout with Kansas City.

Despite being 9 kg overweight and slower even than the coaches in wind sprints, he somehow made the team. However, his comeback lasted only two months. He developed a stiff arm, was released and retired from baseball. His final MLB record was 123-109, with an ERA of 4.24.

* * * * *

When viewed through the lens of history, and compared to the 41 other Japanese who followed him to the majors, Nomo’s accomplishments become even more impressive. He pitched two Opening Day games, one of them long after he had been declared dead by most baseball observers, in addition to his two no-hitters.

There are only three other players who can be said to belong in the same category as Nomo — Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and, on certain days, Boston hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Nomo spent 11 years in the MLB, longer than anyone else as of 2010, seven of those as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. No other Japanese pitcher has come close.

Many other Japanese players with exceptional talent found themselves unable to adapt to either the American style of baseball or the American culture and the isolation that came with living in a foreign country.

Sasaki had three good seasons as the Mariners relief ace, but could not get along with his teammates, including his fellow bullpen pitchers. When he lost his job as the Mariners closer, he opted to leave before his contract was up rather than fight to reclaim his spot.

What’s more, the highly rated catcher Kenji Johjima also walked out on his fat contract, after Seattle’s top three starters complained about his pitch calls and refused to let him catch them anymore.

Highly touted shortstop Kazuo Matsui could not adjust to high inside fastballs and spikes-high slides into second base.

The $44 million outfielder Kosuke Fukudome could not hit the outside fastball, while $33 million hurler Kenshin Kawakami did not seem to be able to handle pressure situations well.

Moreover, Nomo made his mark while also breaking racial and ethnic barriers, furthering the integration of Japanese into American society and helping to bolster the confidence of his fellow countrymen back home vis a vis their trans-Pacific partnership. In the process he became a socially important figure in modern history.

The Nomo story conjures up the American Dream of the pioneering foreigner who arrives far from home, starts out as an underdog and member of a minority and works hard to make good. That is the philosophy that America was built on.

One of Nomo’s biggest fans was Phil Garner, who managed him at Milwaukee and again the following year at Detroit.

Said Garner, “He was a special human being. He was big, even for a major leaguer. He was strong. And he had the strongest legs of any pitcher I knew. You have to have strong legs to pitch with the windup that he has. But it was more than that. In my opinion, special athletes are special people.

“Which comes first, the athlete or the person? I don’t know. I just know they are special. It was true with Paul Molitor. It was true with Robin Yount. It was true with Andy Pettitte. And it was true with Hideo Nomo.

“He was very smart. He had self-control. He was very respectful on the field, in the dugout and in the clubhouse. I never ever saw him lose his temper, never saw him throw his glove. He kept it inside.

“All the players respected him for that. All the world-class athletes I knew controlled their tempers and used their heads.

“To me there was no comparison between Hideo and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Dice-K has to throw many more pitches to win than Nomo; he has to nibble at the corners and the edges of the strike zone. He seems afraid of the hitters. Not Nomo. He was fearless. He could strike out anybody on the planet.

“He knew how to do it. And I think he offers a lesson to modern MLB pitchers with their tight limits on pitch counts and limited bullpen throwing sessions. It’s baloney.

“Nomo threw more pitches in games than anybody else on the staff, but it was really difficult to get him to come out of a game. He always wanted to stay in until the end, and that wasn’t always true of other pitchers who played for me.

“I liked to say that Nomo was his own relief pitcher. He would lose his control, throw eight straight balls late in the game, but then somehow he would right himself, and take control of the game for another 20 or 30 pitches . . .

“He was also the hardest-working pitcher I ever saw. In between starts he threw in the bullpen, every day, which was something the other pitchers didn’t do. And he would throw long in the outfield. He was a model for what a pitcher should be in my opinion.”

American Dream indeed.