The story made headlines on the front page of several Japanese sports newspapers Jan. 25: The Yomiuri Giants in a money trade bought the contract of catcher Katsunori Nomura from the Hanshin Tigers, and just why would the transfer of a back-up backstop who, in fact, did not play a game at the varsity level for the Tigers in 2003, make it on Page 1?
Because of his name, his famous father and the family’s history of opposing the Giants over the past 45 years, that’s why.
Katsunori is the son of Katsuya Nomura, former Pacific League star catcher with the old Nankai Hawks in the late 1950s, throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s who is No. 2 on Japan’s all-time home run hitters list, with 657.
Marty Kuehnert, in his “On the Keen Edge” column, has told the story of how the elder Nomura openly resented all the attention given during his playing days, in general to the more popular Central League and in particular to the Giants and their stars, Shigeo Nagashima and Japan’s No. 1 home run blaster (868), Sadaharu Oh.
Nomura felt he never got the ink or attention he deserved.
After he retired following a 26-year career as an active player and having caught more games than any catcher in history of baseball anywhere, Katsuya Nomura seized an opportunity to beat the Giants when he took the job in 1990 as manager of the CL’s Yakult Swallows and enjoyed the sweetness of victory when he won pennants in 1992, ’93, ’95 and ’97.
When he was let go by Yakult following the 1998 season, Katsuya became the manager of Yomiuri’s archrival Hanshin Tigers, hoping to win a few more CL championships and keep the Giants out of first place.
That was not to be, however; his three-year tenure at the Hanshin helm produced nothing but last place finishes, and he was forced to resign in November of 2001 after his wife was arrested on tax fraud charges.
Son Katsunori, meanwhile, had played (very sporadically) for his dad with the Swallows and followed him to Hanshin, always as a second- or third-string catcher or a minor leaguer. He’s played for eight seasons and warmed a lot of bench during that time.
At 30 years of age, he appeared to be coming to the end of his career after spending the entire 2003 season on the Hanshin farm team while the parent Tigers waltzed to an easy pennant victory under his father’s successor, manager Senichi Hoshino.
Then, 10 days ago and seemingly out the blue, came the news Yomiuri had bought Katsunori’s contract from Hanshin, and he was registered on Jan. 27 with the Tokyo team his father was said to have disdained for so many years.
He’ll be wearing uniform No. 63 and is one of 10 catchers on the Giants’ 2004 roster, so why did the Kyojin get him, and what chance does he have?
Kuehnert — in a column comparing baseball families in the Major Leagues (the Boones, Alous, Bonds . . .) and the lack of same in Japanese baseball — pointed out that Katsunori and Kazushige Nagashima, son of Shigeo, probably made it to the pros here on name value and not talent. That is, because their fathers were two of the best sluggers in the game here and were later managers.
I agree the younger Nomura has not shown much but somehow get the feeling he will make some kind of a mark this year with his new team.
Don’t expect him to play regularly; the Giants have all-star masked man Shinnosuke Abe as their No. 1 catcher. But Abe was injured, missed the final month of the 2003 campaign and was relieved by Yoshinori Murata, who batted just .148.
Should Abe go down again, Giants manager Tsuneo Horiuchi may look to someone else as a fill-in, and it could be Katsunori.
In 50 games on the Hanshin Western League farm club last year, Nomura batted .321 with a couple of homers and 19 runs batted in and, having reached age 30, Katsunori knows it’s now or never. If he’s ever going to make his mark as a professional player, this is the time.
Also in his favor are his lineage; he’s still got the genes of one great hitter, and the mysterious “Giants” factor, which sometimes sees mediocre players show flashes of greatness when they don that black cap with the super-imposed orange “YG” insignia on the front.
Remember Hiromoto “Big Dave” Okubo? Like Katsunori, he floundered on the Seibu Lions farm team for eight long years — mostly because his manager, Masaaki Mori, refused to recognize his potential — before being traded to the Giants.
He burned Mori and his old teammates with a clutch pinch-hit homer in the 1994 Japan Series (won by Yomiuri over Seibu) and enjoyed a few other moments of heroism during his three years with Tokyo before retiring to become a radio commentator and TV personality.
I have a particular reason for hoping Katsunori gets his chance to play and makes the most of it. He’s a happy-go-lucky, friendly guy who often greets me and other foreign writers in English during batting practice prior to a game, so I’ve become a fan and have a hunch we’ll be seeing him often this season.
I could be wrong. He may never get off the farm again all year, but a strange feeling is telling me we’ll see his name in the headlines again this year, and it won’t be because he was traded.
There is just something weird about the son of Katsuya Nomura, as anti-Giants as anyone can be, playing for Yomiuri.
Baseball is, indeed, a funny game.
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