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Former Dodgers owner reflects on Nomo, friendships

by Jason Coskrey

The paths of former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo and former owner and team president Peter O’Malley didn’t cross during the latter’s recent trip to Japan.

O’Malley was in Tokyo on Saturday to open an exhibit in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame highlighting his family’s many ties and contributions to Japanese baseball — a history that most famously includes O’Malley signing Nomo to play for the Dodgers — while Nomo was out of the country.

“He’s a close friend,” O’Malley told The Japan Times. “He’s in Los Angeles, I’ll see him over the weekend. Coincidentally, he’s there and I’m here.”

When O’Malley calls Nomo a close friend, it’s no small compliment. The former Dodgers president places great value in the friendships he’s created throughout his life. If not for his prior relationships in Japan and the baseball community dating back to 1956, O’Malley may have never signed Nomo in 1995, an event that altered the course of baseball in the U.S. and Japan.

Nomo had been the Pacific League Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1990 for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, also becoming the first PL winner of the Sawamura Award that year. He’d never won fewer than 17 games until an injury-hit 1994 campaign saw him finish 8-7 with a 3.70 ERA.

Despite being one of Japan’s top pitchers, Nomo’s contract negotiations with Kintetsu in 1994 were contentious. So with agent Don Nomura leading the way, Nomo exploited a contractual loophole that allowed him to break free of the Buffaloes and pursue a career in the U.S.

The Dodgers weren’t the only MLB team interested in the right-hander, but it was O’Malley, relying in part on the word of friends in the baseball world, who stepped to the plate with a $2 million signing bonus despite not having seen Nomo pitch.

“Our scouts had very minimal reports on him,” O’Malley said. “But friends in Japan, friends in baseball (professional baseball, amateur baseball), they all said, ‘He’s the right guy. He’s tough, he’s strong, he wants to do it, and he’ll do it well.’

“So it was more on the personal recommendation of baseball people than a professional scout, because they really hadn’t seen him.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Nomo became a sensation early in his MLB career as “Nomomania” swept over Los Angeles, rivalling the heights “Fernandomania” (sparked by the exploits of pitcher Fernando Valenzuela) reached several years prior.

Nomo baffled hitters with his tornado pitching motion, and in 1995 went 13-6, led the National League with 236 strikeouts, and won NL Rookie of the Year honors. In 1996, he did the unthinkable by throwing a no-hitter at Coors Field and threw another in 2001 for the Boston Red Sox. Nomo is one of 26 MLB players with multiple no-hitters.

Nomo finished 123-109 with a 4.24 ERA and 1,918 strikeouts in 12 MLB seasons.

“I admire him for his professionalism and his focus,” O’Malley said. “He was a warrior. When he came to us, we had no one in the organization, maybe one person, who spoke Japanese.

“So he needed an interpreter, he needed space, and I told him we would protect him. We would give him space to relax with friends and family. So I think we helped him. It was a project that was very, very successful.”

The partnership O’Malley and Nomo embarked on effectively opened the Japanese market to MLB and paved the way for Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish and the others who followed in Nomo’s footsteps.

“I give the credit to Nomo,” O’Malley said. “We called him ‘the Warrior.’ He deserves the credit. I’m happy for the role I played supporting him, encouraging him. But what followed, after Hideo, after Chan Ho (Park), after Fernando, the players deserve the credit, not me.”

Relationships are important to O’Malley. They helped lead him to the monumental Nomo signing, and his various friendships are bonds he’s worked to maintain throughout the years.

One has to look no farther than the exhibit he opened in Tokyo on Saturday, which is largely the byproduct of the ties to Japan his family planted in 1956 and have cultivated to this day, something the 75-year-old O’Malley holds dear to his heart.

“All these good folks who were kind enough to come out here, that’s key to me,” he said after cutting the ribbon to open the exhibit.

“To have a good friend is really a treasure. To have more than one or two good friends, you’re blessed. Fortunately, our family have many friends. I’ve been here (Japan) for all kinds of events. Because of friendships.”