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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Remembering Hideo Nomo

Despite the headline, he's not dead. This is just a look back at my favorite Japanese baseball player - Nomo Hideo (野茂 英雄 - surname first).

I am aware that there are many of you out there who care little for 'American' sports, but you'll have to forgive me.

Aside from looking at (and talking to) women, watching hockey and basketball, playing, coaching, videogaming and watching baseball is something I really enjoy.

Don't like what I'm writing about today? Don't fret - come back tomorrow… I'll write about a Japan-related topic completely different in scope.    

Feeling old, it was 20 years ago that coast-coast in North America, baseball fans got to see Nomo (perhaps for the first time) pitch… in the 1995 All-Star Game representing the Los Angeles Dodgers of the National League.

Me? I saw him earlier when he first came up in Japan.

During that All-Star game, however, he faced six batters over two innings, meaning he faced the minimum, striking out three, allowing a hit (and erased on a pitch-out-throw'em-out at second-base), no walks and obviously no runs.

He was dominant against the bats of American League greats Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas, Albert Belle and Cal Ripken Jr.

I was proud… proud because Nomo was the first Japanese-born and trained pitcher to start an MLB All-Star Game and he conducted himself with his typical efficiency.

I was lucky. I got to see Nomo play while in Japan… no, not in person, as he played for the Kintetsu Buffaloes situated in Osaka… and I lived some 500 kilometers northeast in Tochigi-ken… but rather I saw him pitch on television.

Living in Japan, despite all of the glories and new and strange sights, sounds and smells around me on a daily basis, no matter the foreigner, sometimes you just need a big mouthful of 'gaijin normalcy' to get you through a day.

While I could get that easily enough from fellow AETs (assistant English teachers) Matthew and sometime girlfriend Ashley or from phone chats with others like Kristine, I freely admit that back in Canada I was a television junkie.

Television was and is pablum for my tiny egg-shell mind. This is probably the one huge way I differ from most of you voracious readers out there, but keep in mind that I also tend to read a book a week, too.

Then, as now, I didn't necessarily have the TV Guide memorized, but I knew dates, times and channels of all the shows I wanted to watch and made time to do so.

But I lacked that in Japan. Certainly in Japan of 1990-1993.

Although Japan had a stunning (sarcasm) number of channels, aside from a comedy variety show and anime program or three (all in Japanese), every other bloody television show seemed to be related to cooking and food. I like those things, but food is also about variety.

Despite being a nerd who taught piano and clarinet (and played all brass, woodwinds and keyboards), and a Star Trek, Star Wars, comic book collecting-D&D-lovin' guy who lived in his parent's basement… I played sports: soccer and baseball.

I love all sports, actually - hockey is a favorite to watch, but in the summer, it was and is, baseball.
In Japan… I found that with their telecasts of professional Japanese baseball, I was able to easily maintain that little touch of 'home'.

Nomo was born on August 31, 1968 in Minato-ku, Osaka… so he was a hometown boy who played for the hometown team… and then left them. Owtch. 

Nomo was a rookie ball player back in 1990 when I first saw him pitch, and he was incredible to watch. That wind-up alone was something different… something North American ball players probably hadn't seen in 25+ years - if ever.

Called the Tornado wind-up, Nomo, with the ball in his hand, would raise both arms together high up into the air above his head, pivot on his right foot with his right knee high above his waist - to his chest, actually), turn his back completely to the hitter, and then come down and around with his body like a whirling dervish thrusting his plant leg (left) and then coming around to pitch.

See for yourself with this brilliant slow motion video:
If I tried to do that with my body and not have a woman involved, I'd slip a disc or three.

The wind-up also gave Nomo the fabulous nickname of "Tornado"

The fact that he could chuck the ball with alarming accuracy at speeds in the mid to high 90s (MPH), made it all the more impressive.

I watched him pitch that first game, and he immediately became my favorite Japanese ball player.

The next day at work (one of the junior high schools I was an assistant English teacher at), I recall bubbling over with excitement, wanting to talk to my fellow Japanese teachers and students about Nomo-san.

I made the bold proclamation that morning, that Nomo would one day not only pitch in the North American MLB, but would be a star - he was that good.

That was stupid of me to have said - even if I was correct.

The Japanese are a proud people… very patriotic… and while they love their own baseball, they were also kind enough and adept enough to admit that MLB was indeed the Number One baseball league… they shrugged, saying maybe… meaning "no"… because I only had that one game on which to build my strato-busting opinion… and they were more practical… and perhaps wouldn't really WANT Nomo or any other Japanese star to go to North America to play ball.

I can dig it. I'd feel that way if NHL star and Canadian Sidney Crosby suddenly decided to accept an offer to play in the Russian-organized KHL (even though it's not exactly on the same par with the NHL, in my opinion).

But… as I said, it seems like I was correct, anyway.

In Japan, Nomo pitched for five season with the Kintetsu Buffaloes—see his Japanese rookie ball card below. (This is from my collection - I collected Japanese baseball and soccer cards while abroad).

My ol dog, Buster, wearing my Kintetsu Buffaloes baseball cap with a Japanese rookie card of Hideo Nomo on the lid.

In Japan, his record was 78 Wins - 46 Losses with a 3.15 ERA (Earned Run Average), winning at least 17 games four times…

Nomo's contract was bid for and won by the Los Angeles Dodgers (them bums! sorta), and then was approved by Nomo, who could have voided the whole trade (for money). But Los Angeles did have good weather and with a westcoast locale, was 'close' to Japan.

Nomo would eventually spend seven years in Los Angeles - even throwing a no-hitter on September 17, 1996 - in Denver, where the air is thinner and the ball flies out of the park easier.

He also garnered a shoe deal, with Nike producing the Air Max Nomo in 1996.

He pitched another year in Los Angeles, but by then batters had begun to figure out his funky delivery, and his effectiveness was no longer as effective…

Still… he became the second pitcher (after Dwight Doc Gooden of they NY Mets) to strike out at least 200 hitters in each of his first three years.

After a poor start in 1998, Los Angeles traded Nomo to the Mets…and was eventually released.
He was then signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1999, played three games for the minor league team, and then released after refusing to pitch any more games down there.

He was signed (still in 1999) by the Milwaukee Brewers - finishing 12W-8L, with a high 4.54 ERA… but still became the third-fastest pitcher to reach 1,000 career strike outs.

Contract issues with the Brewers had him being waived through the league with the Philadelphia Phillies claiming him only to grant him Free Agency 24 hours later after they realized the contract talks were going to be a problem.

He signed with the Detroit Tigers in 2000, went 8W-12L with a high 4.74 ERA and was done there.
Ugh… between 1998 and 2000 he really wasn't that successful… and it seemed as though Nomo was no more going to be living up to my hype.

But he wasn't done yet. In 2001, he signed with the Boston Red Sox (hauuuuuch patooooie!) and threw his second no-hitter on April 4 against the Baltimore Orioles. That feat also allowed him to become the fourth pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter in each league (National and American Leagues - which comprise Major League Baseball - MLB). That year, he also led the American League in strikeouts.

Contract up, he went back to the National League's Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002, going 16W - 6L, 193 strikeouts and a 3.39 ERA.

In 2003, he had another decent year with LA, but then towards the end of the year… no so much…
In 2004 - after shoulder surgery, Nomo went 4W-11L with the astronomical ERA of 8.25, which is also the worst ERA in baseball history for pitchers with at least 15 decisions.

Not invited back to the Dodgers, Nomo signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, with a contract incentive bonus of $700,000 if he started 20 games. Controversy or just smart, he was released by the team two days before he was scheduled to start his 20th game… but I suspect it had more to do with his ugly 7.24 ERA.

The NY Yankees (hauuuuuch patooooie!) took a chance on Nomo, signed him to a minor league team, but he never played with the big club.

In 2006, he signed with the Chicago White Sox to play eight games their minor league team, but was released from them mid-way through the season… oh, how the might have fallen!

In 2007 he signed to play in the Venezuelan Winter League for Leones del Caracas… and did okay - enough for the Kansas City Royals to sign him in 2008. He made his debut on April 10, 2008 - his first time in the MLB since 2005, in relief against the NY Yankees (hauuuuuch patooooie!).

The Royals were losing 4-1, and Nomo promptly loaded the bases, but was able to get out of it after getting out fellow Japanese (and Yankee hauuuuuch patooooie!) Matsui Hideki (surname first).

But the Royals, also not up on the concept of using a relief pitcher with arm problems, bringing Nomo back out for the 8th (uneventful) and the 9th inning… giving up homeruns to Alex Rodriguez (steroids!) and Jorge Posada (I actually like him). He was released on April 29, 2007.

On July 17, 2008, Nomo officially retired - not with a bang, but a whimper.

Nomo had very good success (initially) in MLB… which helped convince other Japanese baseball stars to try their luck, which is why westerners know of Yu Darvish, Dasuke Matsuzaka, Matsui, and Ichiro Suzuki. 

So… with 12 years in the MLB, Nomo is considered to be the first Japanese pitcher to make a permanent move to North America.

in January of 2014, Nomo was elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame becoming, at that time, the youngest player in the Hall's history, and only the third ever player to be selected in their first year of eligibility.

I find that interesting… only the third-ever player to get in to the Japanese baseball hall of fame in his first year eligible? How very Japanese.

It's like when you want to become a sushi chef in Japan… you spend the first five years learning how to hold a knife. You don't get to cut anything, though.

The next seven years (6-12) are spent learning how to cut things other than the main ingredient
Years 13-20 are spent learning how to manipulate the main sushi ingredient - the rice… how to flavor and cook it, and massage it into the perfect shape. Years 21+… no you can put it all together and finally make sushi. Real Japanese sushi… not that stuff you see in the clamshell packaging at the local grocer.

Obviously I'm joking about the length of time and what they do… but… not really. There is a very long apprenticeship for everything in Japan, from salary man to chef.

It's also why, I suspect that they rarely award baseball players with admission into the hallowed halls when first eligible… you better be damnnnnnnn special… and Nomo was.

Andrew is out of the old ball game Joseph

1 comment:

  1. You can see why he was so successful early in his career. He had a mid 90's fastball, different types of forkball, plus that delivery made it extremely deceitful in figuring out what he was throwing. He also would slow down his delivery at times making it even harder to time the pitch.