Advertisement

ALL-STAR GAME : Japanese Fans Say ‘Tornado’ Is Their Hero : All-Star game: Dodger pitcher Hideo Nomo’s appearance at The Ballpark has tremendous impact in his native land, where he once was branded a rebel.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six months ago in Japan, Hideo Nomo was treated as a spoiled brat, a rebel who’d quit Japanese baseball when his team refused to bow to his “unreasonable” demands for a multiyear contract.

Today, as the pitcher who started for the National League in Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Arlington, Tex., he is a national hero.

Wrote Yasuhiro Tase in the Nihon Keizai newspaper: “The most famous Japanese in America is neither Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama nor Minister of International Trade and Industry Ryutaro Hashimoto, who carried out the auto negotiations. It is the pitcher ‘Tornado’ Nomo, who is building up a mountain of strikeouts with his forkball.”

Millions of Japanese got to see Nomo in America for the first time on TV as Fuji TV, a national network, broadcast the first two innings of the All-Star game in which Nomo appeared. NHK, the semi-governmental network, broadcast the entire game but only to its satellite channel’s 6.7 million subscribers, as it has each game in which Nomo has appeared this season.

Advertisement

Everywhere, Nomo was the focus of attention.

In front of a large TV screen outside a women’s fashion shop in Tokyo, about 600 people gathered to watch. Megumi Sakurai, 15, a high school student who said she started watching major league games only after Nomo went to the United States, said she hoped Nomo would “create a good image for Japan, whose image has been damaged by the Aum sect” and its poison gas attack on the Tokyo subways.

“I came just to see Nomo,” said Yasuo Asakura, 23, an employee of a meat-packing company. He said he became a fan of Nomo after he started pitching for the Dodgers because “the major leagues are the dream of everyone who plays baseball.”

Shinsuke Kawashima, 24, a computer software company employee on his way to work, said he felt proud because Nomo’s success in the United States made it appear that “Japanese baseball has become strong.”

Advertisement

“Nomo has talent. He doesn’t need to be sociable,” he added in a jab at the earlier Japanese media criticism of the pitcher.

Not only has Nomo become the quintessential local boy who made good, he also has given Japan’s image in the United States a human touch. And for many Japanese working in jobs offering security but little challenge, Nomo has become a romantic symbol--a youth who threw away a safe career to pursue a dream.

“Many Japanese, even those who don’t know anything about baseball, have been getting up early in the morning when Nomo pitches to glue themselves to satellite broadcasts because they are moved by the earnest way that a youth seeking a dream is leading his life,” wrote Tase.

Nomo has done more to improve U.S.-Japan relations than either of the two governments, Tase added.

Advertisement

Kenichi Fujimoto, 28, an employee of an American-Japanese chemical company, said he took off work to watch history being made, a Japanese player appearing in the All-Star game. Nomo typifies Japanese who want to “test their ability” in an environment of freedom not found within the strictures of Japanese corporate culture, Fujimoto said.

“The conservative environment in Japan is good for some people, but those who want to test their limits need the freedom of America,” he added.

The Asahi newspaper, in an editorial headlined, “Nomo, the Hero,” called the pitcher’s success in America “a pleasant cultural shock” and an unspoken challenge to Japan’s style of “managed baseball,” which uses a corporate-style structure and preaches that spirit can prevail over talent.

Even politicians, campaigning for a parliamentary election July 23, were talking about Nomo.

Advertisement

In one TV debate, Kenichi Omae, leader of a fledgling political party called the Heisei Group, held up Nomo’s refusal to tolerate the conditions on his Japanese team, the Buffaloes, as an example of how voters should act if they want to improve their living conditions.

“Nomo wasn’t happy in Japan. So he took a risk and went to the United States,” Omae said. “Too many voters just give up and tolerate the conditions around them.”

Keiko Kishi, an actress running for a seat in the upper house, said Nomo’s attitude gave her “a feeling of refreshment--a feeling I don’t often get nowadays” given the lethargy of Japanese politics and the stagnation of the national economy.

So enamored are Nomo’s countrymen of his fastballs, forkballs and strikeouts that a leading Japanese life insurance company has signed a contract with him to do commercials for 100 million yen ($1.1 million). And travel agencies have started offering four-to-five-day, $1,600 “Nomo tours” to Los Angeles that include tickets to a series of Dodgers games.

Advertisement

An image of Los Angeles as a dangerous place lingers among Japanese, said Keiichi Tsujino of Japan Travel Bureau. But Los Angeles’ welcome of Nomo has added a note of cheer to the city’s image.

The Asahi newspaper recalled the boom created by Fernando Valenzuela, who, like Nomo, could speak no English when he joined the Dodgers 14 years ago, and noted that Los Angeles is a “melting pot of races.”

“The city gives a feeling of welcoming anyone from any country,” the paper said.

Before he left Japan, Nomo was depicted by the mass media here as self-indulgent. Teammates treated him coolly. Sportswriters found him uninteresting because he said so little in response to their questions. And even though he led the Pacific League in victories for four consecutive years, team executives, complaining he failed to win big games and suffered too many losses, refused to recognize him as a star.

Advertisement

Last year his salary of 140 million yen ($1.6 million) was about a third of what Japan’s biggest baseball stars received.

Japanese media outlets condemned Nomo’s flight to the United States, saying it would destroy order in Japanese baseball. Now, experts have all kinds of theories to explain why Nomo is doing so well.

Suguru Egawa, a former fastball pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants who is now a commentator, speculated that American baseballs are a millimeter wider than balls used in Japan and that “the bigger ball fits Nomo’s hand well.”

Egawa also said the major leagues haven’t seen a forkball like the one Nomo throws.

Advertisement

Some Japanese speculated that Nomo has been helped by a bigger strike zone in American baseball. The area in which umpires will call a strike is reputed to be the equivalent of 1 1/2 baseballs bigger than the Japanese strike zone.

Nomo himself has told Japanese reporters that he feels the American strike zone is bigger. “Umpires here will give you a strike on a low changeup,” he said.

One Japanese reporter covering Nomo in Los Angeles, however, speculated that the reason for the apparent difference in the strike zones might be the positioning of the umpires. Umpires in Japan call pitches from above the catcher’s head, whereas in the major leagues, umpires watch pitches in between the batter’s body and the catcher’s face.


Advertisement