HIDEO NOMO: HIS PIONEERING BOLT FROM THE JAPAN LEAGUES, NOMOMANIA, TWO NO-HITTERS AND A TOUGH CAREER

HIDEO NOMO

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Nomo with the Dodgers
Hideo Nomo was the first Japanese player to have a big impact on the Major Leagues. Nicknamed "the Tornado" because of his unusual windup motion, Nomo was selected as the starting pitcher for the National League in the 1995 Major League All Star Game, won rookie of the year honors, led the league in strikeouts and topped Sandy Koufax's Dodger record by striking out a total of 50 hitters in four consecutive games.

Japanese fans admired Nomo's individuality and unorthodox pitching style. One Japanese baseball journalist told Time, "As well as being technically brilliant, Nomo had charisma." His American pitching coaches admired his skill. Jim Colborn of the Dodgers told the New York Times, “He’s a wonder. From an experienced professional’s point of view, it’s a pure treat to watch guys like him do their craft. It would be like an art critic having a chance to go back in time and see some of the great masters work on their paintings.”

The son of a baseball-loving postal worker, Nomo was born in Osaka on August 31, 1968. Regarded as a quiet and private person, he and his wife Kikuku have a son born in 1998. In spite of his introverted personality, he generally has made an effort to sign autographs for kids and perform the chores required by his stardom.

Nomo is widely praised for opening the door for Japanese baseball players. The Yankee’s Matsui said, “those of us who’re playing in the Major League owe him a lot. I want to tell him, “You did a great job.” Japanese home run champ Sadaharu Oh said, “He raised the level of Japanese baseball as high as it is in the United States and has encouraged other players to take the challenge.”

Brad Lefton wrote in the New York Times: “Nomo was not the first Japanese player in the majors, but he was the first to go of his own volition and in the prime of his career. Had he failed, hostilities over his departure were so deep that he probably would not have been welcomed back. Instead, he became a national hero and an international pioneer. The rules have been refined, and 40 players have since followed as of 2010.[Source: Brad Lefton, New York Times, May 1, 2010]

Nomo had 123 victories in Major League Baseball and 201 for his combined career. Lefton wrote: “During his 12 seasons in America, he experienced the ecstasy of throwing two no-hitters and the anguish of being released seven times, the final time from the Kansas City Royals in April 2008. But his success and unyielding determination to keep pitching in America, even when it meant signing a minor league deal, earned Nomo steadfast respect and popularity in his homeland.” [Ibid]

Good Websites and Sources: Hideo Nomo on mlb.com mlb.mlb.com/team/player ; Hideo Nomo on Baseball Reference baseball-reference.com ; New York Times Archives on Hideo Nomo nytimes.com ; New York Daily News on Hideki Irabu Comeback nydailynews.com/sports ; Daisuke Matsuzaka on on Baseball Reference baseball-reference.com ; Daisuke Matsuzaka on mlb.com mlb.mlb.com/team/player ; Daisuke Matsuzaka Bio on Associated Content associatedcontent.com/article

Articles on Japanese Baseball: Negative Impact of Japanese Success in the Major Leagues time.com/time/world/ ; World Baseball Classic worldbaseballclassic.com ; Early Days of Japanese Baseball international-baseball.suite101.com ; New York Times article om Japanese Fans travel.nytimes.com ; Baseball Hall of Fame Timeline on History of Japanese Baseball english.baseball-museum.or.jp ; Academic Paper on Japanese Baseball /www.economics.hawaii.edu

Links in this Website: SPORTS IN JAPAN (Click Sports, Recreation, Pets ) Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BASEBALL Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BASEBALL RULES, CUSTOMS AND FANS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BASEBALL TEAMS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BASEBALL PLAYERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ICHIRO SUZUKI Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Nomo's Pitching Style

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Nomo is 6-foot-2-inches tall and weighs 210 pounds. He basically had two pitches: a blazing forkball (a tricky sinker with an unorthodox grip) and a 92-mile-per-hour fastball. He sometimes threw a slow change-up curve ball but not often. Nomo grips the ball so hard when he throws a forkball that sometimes he gets a crack in his fingernail that goes all the way down to the cuticle.

One of the keys to Nomo's success was that he had two very different pitches delivered by same super-flexible wind-up that seems to catch batters off guard. His forkball come in a slow version that looks like a change-up and a "wipeout" forkball that is his strikeout pitch. The Dodger catcher Mike Piazza told Sports Illustrated, "It's tough being a two-pitch pitcher in this league, but so far he's done it.”

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated described Nomo as a "leg-spinning, back-bending, head-turning, arm-whipping contortionist." Steve Wulf of Time wrote that Nomo's wind up has three stages: "the stretch which is not unlike that of a waking up from a nap; the half pirouette, in which he shows the batter the back of his uniform...and then the over-the-top delivery."

Nomo's Baseball Career in Japan

Nomo was regarded as good pitcher in high school but was ignored by pro scouts because of his unorthodox pitching style. He pitched for the silver-medal-winning Japanese baseball team that lost to the United States in the gold medal game in the 1988 Olympics. He then signed with Pacific League's Kinetsu Buffalos, whose paid him a bonus of $875,000, the highest ever given to a rookie.

In Nomo’s first four season inn Japan, according to Japanese baseball expert Jim Allen, he was “arguably the most dominant pitcher ever.” With the Buffalos, Nomo lead the Pacific League in victories and strikeouts every year between 1990 and 1993, striking out 1,078 batters in 937 innings. During the 1994 season, he was hampered by shoulder problems and clashes with is coach who wanted him to workout hard even though he was in pain.

In the Japan League, Nomo worked hard. He threw 140 pitches or more in 61 games. Once he threw 198 pitches in a single game. On another occasion he threw 191 pitches. Over five season he had a 78-46 record and a 3.15 ERA.

Tired of playing for a non-contender in Japan and harboring ambitions or play in the Major Leagues, Nomo "retired" from Buffalos in January 1995. His arm was in tatters from overwork. The fact that he was able to resurrect his career n the Major League Allen said was “testimony to his determination.”

Nomo Bolts to the Major League

When Nomo suddenly retired from the Kintetsu Buffaloes at the peak of his career so he could test his abilities in the United States he was regarded by many in Japan as a rebel and a traitor. Recalling that time Hiroshima Manager and former player Kenji Nomura told the New York Times in 2010, “Sure, I remember those who said: “What? He’s bolting for America?” or “How can he just ditch Japanese baseball like that?” but I always felt it was his career and his choice,” Nomura said. [Source: Brad Lefton, New York Times, May 1, 2010]

Brad Lefton wrote in the New York Times: “Nomo met with Kintetsu’s management in mid-December 1994 to set his salary for the next season. Citing shoulder troubles that limited his starts and contributed to his worst season, Kintetsu offered a reduction to $1.3 million, Nomo’s first pay cut since turning professional in 1990. Nomo, Japan’s leader in wins and strikeouts every season from 1990 to 1993, countered with the unheard-of demand for a multiyear contract.” [Ibid]

“Tempers erupted and the team president reportedly declared, “You are not the face of the organization.” Soon after, Nomo unleashed the only leverage he had, the discovery of a loophole in Japan’s baseball rules. By voluntarily retiring, he was free to sign overseas. After nearly a month more of bitter haggling with Kintetsu, Nomo was finally free to pursue a career in America. In February, he signed with the Dodgers for the league-minimum $109,000 and a $2 million signing bonus. That is a far cry from what accomplished pitchers in their prime can command when they come over today. The Boston Red Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka to a six-year, $52 million contract before the 2007 season after giving his Japanese team $51 million for his early release. [Ibid]

Nomo Enters the Major Leagues

Growing up, Nomo idolized American pitchers, particularly Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, and kept baseball cards of his favorite American players taped to his locker. Several teams were interested in Nomo but the Dodgers won out because they were willing to give him a signing bonus of $2 million based solely on the viewing of a two minute highlight video tape.

In his debut season in 1995 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Nomo had 13-6 win-loss record and a 2.54 earned run average and led the National League with 236 strikeouts in 191 innings and limited opposing batters to a .182 batting average. In June and July, he won seven straight games and struck out three of the six batters he faced in the All Star game.

Brad Lefton wrote in the New York Times: “In 1995 Nomo made his debut with Dodgers as No. 16. Lefton wrote, “He gave up one hit and struck out seven in a five-inning, no-decision start at San Francisco. His whimsical delivery---raising his arms up to the heavens, twisting his body back while standing on his right leg, then letting it all unravel as he hurled himself toward the plate---and startling ascendancy were just the kind of freshness American baseball needed in the ugly aftermath of its labor strife.” [Source: Brad Lefton, New York Times, May 1, 2010]

“It was the fulfillment of a longstanding, secret dream. Nomo had tasted overseas baseball as a member of Japan’s silver-medal-winning team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and had been intrigued by Roger Clemens’s training program. When Japanese players received a system of free agency in 1993, a possible route to Major League Baseball had been opened, but not until after 10 years of service. That meant Nomo would have to wait until his early 30s to pursue his American dream.” [Ibid]

Brad Lefton wrote in the New York Times: “Excitement built during Nomo’s first season, as his performance soon started coming around with his delivery. Winless in May, Nomo won all six June starts, striking out 10 or more batters three times and lowering his earned run average to 2.05 from 3.82 by the end of the month. He started the All-Star Game in July for the National League and was its rookie of the year in November. In a season that lost games to a lingering players strike, Nomo finished 13-6 with a 2.54 E.R.A. and 236 strikeouts, tops in baseball. [Ibid]

Nomo went 16-11 in 1996 and limited opposing batters to a .216 batting average. He threw a no-hit, no-run game against the Colorado Rockies at Denver's Coors Field, generally regarded as the most hitter-friendly Major League Park in the United States, on September 17 1996. By this time, Nomo had earned millions in endorsement contracts from the likes of Nike and Toyota was named as the third most talked about person, products or thing in Japan after the Internet and Windows 95.

Nomomania

Dodger attendance increased 4 percent after Nomo joined the team in 1995. On average 15,000 more spectators showed up for Nomo games than non-Nomo games, and fans spent millions on $150 Nomo Dodger jackets, $50 Nomo sweatshirts and $25 Nomo T-shirts as well Nomo-inspired snacks like sushi-flavored pretzels.

Although he was called "an ingrate" and "a troublemaker" when he left the Japan League, Japanese fans embraced Nomo as a national hero when he became a success in the United States. All of Nomo's game are broadcast live and salarymen slumped into work after watching his games at odd hours of the night. Some Japanese teams had televisions installed in their dugouts so they could watch his games. Nomo’s spectacular debut sparked interest in baseball across Asia.

At the height of Nomomania in Japan, articles were written about him everyday in the newspapers, a hundred or so Japanese print and broadcasting journalist cover every game he pitched, and fans in Japan plucked down as much as $4,100 for three night package tours to Los Angeles to see his games. At an exhibition game at the Tokyo Dome, the popping of flash bulbs was so distracting whenever he appeared on the field that announcer had to tell people in the stadium to stop taking pictures.

Nomo's Later Career

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Nomo with the Brewers
Nomo had a less than sensational year in 1997. He won 13 and lost 11, had an earned run average of 4.24 and had 233 strikeouts. In 1998, after a rough 2-7 start with the Dodgers he was traded to the New York Mets, where joined his friends former Dodger catcher Mike Piazza and Japanese pitcher Masato Yoshii and went 4-5, with a 4.82 ERA in 17 games and became the first Japanese Major League player to hit a home run.

In 1999, after going 0-2 with a 4.83 ERA in four starts with Mets he was released. He was later picked up the Milwaukee Brewers and did so so with them. In 2000, he had a bad year with he Detroit Tigers, one of the worst teams in the Major League. Nomo still struck out a lot of players but he was losing control and giving up a lot walks and home runs.

In his debut with the Boston Red Sox on April 4, 2001, Nomo threw his second no hitter in a 3-0 victory over the Orioles. He recorded 11 strikeouts, walked three players and joined Cy Young, Jim Bunning and Nolan Ryan as he only players to throw no-hitters in both leagues. For the season, Nomo started off well but had a rough time in June and July. He ended the season with 13-10 record and an American-League-leading 220 strikeouts.

In 2002, Nomo returned to the Dodgers, with a $14 million, 2-year contract. He was reportedly anxious to return to his old team, turning down a $20 million, 3-year contract with Boston. In 2002, he went 16 and 6 and had an ERA of 3.39. In April 2003, Nomo won his 100th game. He had a good year in 2003, with a 16-13 record and an 3.09 ERA with little run support from the Dodgers. Some of the best hitters in the league flailed away helplessly at his split fingers that seemed have as much movement as an Olympic gymnast.

Nomo got off to an okay start with the Dodgers in 2004 but had a hard time after he injured his right shoulder. He finished the season with a 4-11 record. he was dropped by the Dodgers after the season. His record for nine years ending in 2004 was 114 wins and 90 losses with an ERA of 4.07

In June 2005, Nomo notched his 200th career victory as a Tampa Bay Devil Ray. He is only the 16th Japanese to achieve that mark and the first to do it with Major League victories. In 2005, Nomo went 5-8 with a 7.24 ERA with the Bay Devil Rays. In July after he had run up a 10.32 ERA and 1-7 record, he was released by the struggling Tampa Devil Rays. Later he was signed by the New York Yankees to a minor league contract

End of Nomo's Later Career

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Nomo
Nomo finally retired in 2008 after laboring hard for several season to make a comeback. He said, “I want to continue, but I don’t think I can deliver a professional level performance anymore.” Asked if he achieved everything he wanted he said, “Some players say they have no regrets when they retire, but I do.” No club tried to pick him after he was released by the Kansas City Royals in April 2008.

Nomo had a 201-155 record in Japan and Major Leagues record of 123-109 with a 4.24 ERA in 323 games in the Majors. Nomo played with the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Kansas City Royals

In 2008, at the age of 39, Nomo played in a couple of games for the Kansas City Royals. It was the first time he played in the Major Leagues in more than three years, Nomo had signed a minor league deal with the Royals and was promoted to the Royals early in the season. In one game against the Milwaukee Brewers he gave up five runs, and seven hits, including a three-run home-run in three innings.

Before that Nomo last appearance was in July 2005. In 2006, he played with the White Sox Triple-A team but was released with an elbow injury. In 2007, he pitched with the Venezuelan winter league. During that time he had elbow and shoulder surgery.

Nomo’s Career After the Major Leagues

By the late 2000s, Nomo was finally a welcomed member of Japan’s baseball community. Explaining why he asked him to offer advie to his pitchers, Hiroshima Manager Kenji Nomura told the New York Times, “Just the name Nomo has great meaning to our players. Of course, one of the things he can teach is his great specialty, the forkball. But he also has a grasp of things like controlling your emotions on the mound and reading the psychology of batters. We have a lot of young pitchers, and they’ve all responded really well to his being here.” [Source: Brad Lefton, New York Times, May 1, 2010]

Nomo has been very active developing players. Since 2003, he has financially supported the Nomo Baseball Club, a team that competes in Japan’s industrial leagues, from which he was drafted in 1989. Nomo has no field-level involvement with the team. Five players have turned professional, including pitcher Kenta Suda, who was signed by the Seattle Mariners in 2007. Although Suda was released this spring after two seasons in the minor leagues, he represented a continuation of Nomo’s pioneering legacy. A Japanese player with no professional experience, Suda went directly to the United States. That is still a rare occurrence, but 15 years ago, Nomo started a trend many considered unthinkable at the time. [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) Japan 101 2) 5) 8) 10) 11) 12 Wikipedia 3) 4) 6) 7) 9) 13) Japan Zone

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2011

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