Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

A Japanese Tornado in the History of Baseball

July 12, 2011

With the abundance of Japanese baseball players in the Majors these days, it’s not difficult for any average baseball fan to name one of them. Ichiro? Sure, who hasn’t heard the perennial All-Star’s name?  Hideki Matsui? Come on, he’s Godzilla. How about Daisuke Matsuzaka? The Red Sox Nation will laugh at you for not knowing that one. The list goes on and on with the likes of Hideki Irabu, whom George Steinbrenner once called a “fat toad,” while Mets fans might recall Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Kaz Matsui, both of whom made their presence known more with their dyed hair and bright-colored wristbands than their play on the field. But if you asked me the same question, I only have one answer: Hideo Nomo.  The one who started it all.

Nomo Mania began in the 1995 season, when he splashed onto the Major League scene with the Los Angeles Dodgers, seemingly out of nowhere, after a bitter contract dispute with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Pacific League in Japan. Mesmerizing crowds and bewildering opposing batters at every ballpark with his never-before-seen “tornado” windup style, he finished the season with an impressive résumé, leading the league in strikeouts, a 13-6 record and a 2.54 ERA.  And let’s not forget he was the starting pitcher for the National League in the All-Star Game. His performance was even more impressive the following season, going 16-11 and capping the year off with a no-hitter at Denver’s Coors Field, the hitter’s paradise. All these numbers, however, don’t begin to tell the story of Nomo, whose legacy, while paling in comparison to that of Jackie Robinson, warrants a discussion as a future Hall of Fame member for his contributions to the game of baseball as a whole.

The challenges he faced in paving the way for other Japanese players to come to the Majors cannot be understated. If you think the 24/7 media scrutiny Ichiro, Matsui or Dice-K have received in their time here is bad, Nomo’s plight makes them look like spoiled children on My Super Sweet 16. A Japanese baseball player playing outside of Japan at that time was not only unprecedented, but also seen as a bit of an insult in the eyes of many Japanese, many of whom lived and died by baseball.  They sincerely believed that the Japanese brand of baseball was the best in the world. I viewed Nomo’s move to the States in the same way other Japanese did. I came to the States from Japan in the summer of 1994, shortly before Nomo. As an obsessed baseball fan growing up in Tokyo, idolizing the likes of Nomo, it was even more difficult for me to see him abandon not only his team, but also his country.  In Japan, where loyalty is of the utmost importance, Nomo’s decision was a slap in the face. The reaction to Nomo’s defection to the Majors was in stark contrast to the fanfare and celebration that preceded the departures of Ichiro, Matusi and Daisuke. His every move, on and off the field, was questioned and dissected, partially because some Japanese, even those in the media, wanted to see him fail. But this attitude from his countrymen made his accomplishments in the majors, including throwing no-hitters in both the National and American Leagues (one of only five pitchers in the history of the MLB to accomplish this feat), even more impressive. Ichiro, Matsui and Daisuke came to the majors with the entirety of Japan backing them and cheering them on to succeed. Not Nomo. Ichiro, Matsui and Daisuke came over having multiple destination options and double-digit million dollar contracts. Not Nomo. Ichiro, Matsui and Daisuke had the option to always go back to Japan if things didn’t go so well stateside without receiving a ton of criticism because their failures would have been characterized as “difference in style of play between Japan and America.” Not Nomo. He didn’t have the luxury of being able to go back home. He put everything on the line in coming to the Majors. He had no choice but to succeed.

Nomo’s legacy lies beyond the precedents he set for his fellow countrymen dreaming to play in the Majors.  Were it not for his successful career, we wouldn’t be seeing the Yankees play their opener in Tokyo. The so called “posting system” that enabled Matsui and Daisuke to make their move to the Majors would have never been implemented and without Nomo, the World Baseball Classic might not have been established. And we can’t overlook that Nomo brought many baseball fans, who were still upset about the 1994-95 baseball strike, back to the ballparks with his tornado delivery. His style and success helped renew interest in the sport that America calls its favorite pastime.

While we can’t give Nomo all the credit for the globalization of baseball in the last decade, the success that he enjoyed encouraged 42 other Japanese players to successfully make their way to the Majors since then.  This alone speaks volumes. Sure, Ichiro might have ended up playing in the Majors anyway, but perhaps not as early as 2001.  And Nomo’s success certainly influenced general managers across the MLB to look outside of the U.S. to not only Japan, but other Asian countries as well. The infusion of Latin and Asian players into the Majors in the last 15 years, along with the additional revenue the MLB has generated with its globalization initiatives, must, at least in part, be credited to him.

With all of these accomplishments, is there room for him in the Baseball Hall of Fame?  Not just for his impressive statistics, but for the legacy he left behind? Even when he retired and moved back to Japan, where he was hired to be the Orix Buffaloes’ manager, his desire to implement the American/MLB style of practice and conditioning was unwelcome, and he was eventually let go. It’s truly a shame that someone who has set so many records in Japanese baseball history has yet to be inducted into even the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.  In fact, there is still a debate around whether he will ever be inducted because of Japan’s grudge over his defection to the Majors 16 years ago.  So tell me, America, for a man who left his home and country and changed the MLB both with how he played and for those that followed him, can we and our Hall of Fame give this guy the love that he deserves?

 

  • Andy Comeaux

    Great story. I loved watching Nomo (I tried to emulate his delivery for weeks) and was completely drawn into the buzz that surrounded him. but I didn’t realize the backlash he took on from Japan.

  • Shaughn

    Great article. I’m wondering if one day in thirty or forty years we’ll look back at Nomo as a figure with much more historical precedence than what we think of now.

  • Michael Shing

    Nomo slapped Ogasawara in the face!

  • notinbtnet

    Growing up in LA, I remember Nomo-mania well.  I was too young to experience when Fernando-mania took LA by storm, so this was my version of that.  The excitement in the air every fifth day was amazing.  And like you said, the path that Nomo paved for Asian players should not be discounted and should not be forgotten.  Although, Chan-Ho Park was already on the Dodgers at that time, Nomo was the first Asian player that made baseball realize the marketability and star potential of Asian players.  It’s sad to hear how much of a stigma he still has in Japan, one would hope they would be past that now.