What IS Nomomania?

Mike Downey is a sports columnist for The Times

I began Nomomania. There, I said it.

After the first actual major-league baseball game pitched by the Occidental tourist, Hideo Nomo--a real thing of beauty at a real thing of ugly, Candlestick Park in San Francisco--I was so impressed that my entire first paragraph on the next day’s Times sports page read: “Nomomania!”

Next thing I knew, it existed. ESPN: “Nomomania!” CNN: “Nomomania!” KABC: “Nomomania!” Radio chat-show hosts. Callers. Fans in the stands. A T-shirt manufacturer called to ask if I had copyrighted “Nomomania.” A Tokyo television producer asked me to tape an interview to explain how (and why) I had created “this Nomo Maniac thing.” An inquiring mind of Japanese journalism approached me at Dodger Stadium, wondering when (and where) I had first coined the term “Nomomania.”

Uh, well, er, I said.

“I sort of stole it.”

“You STOLE?”

Shhhh, I implored her, as heads turned. Then I hemmed a little, then hawwed some, then ultimately confessed that Fernando Valenzuela, who begat “Fernandomania,” had been my inspiration upon first encountering Hideo Nomo, who begat “Nomomania.” Whereupon my new acquaintance from the Far East nodded as though she understood, gazing at me sympathetically, before asking in a hushed voice who this “Venezuela” was.


Oh, and she asked something else:

“What IS ‘Nomomania?’ ”

Well, I ventured, Nomomania is a phenomenon. It is a craze, a cult, a fad that makes an individual all the rage. It is, by way of example, whenever Hideo Nomo pitches a game of baseball, people pay for the privilege of witnessing him in double or treble the numbers that another pitcher would ordinarily lure to the gate. Understand? Nomo excitement! Nomo fever! Nomo mania! Like the Beatles.

The woman looked at me and said: “This is possible?”

“Yes,” I said.

No, I thought.

No way. No way Nomo could get that big. No way some “pro” ballplayer from the National League Far East could turn our game into the international pastime. Nomomania? Nice line. Nutty idea.

Except it wasn’t. Nomo dazzled like a diamond and sizzled like a sparkler. He made big-league batters swing like Little League rejects, flailing at baseballs in the dirt. He was the freshest thing around in a sport that had gone stale. He brought back to the bleachers customers who wailed that they would “never go to another game” after the needless greed of an intentional walkout.

Hideo Nomo saved baseball. That’s my theory, anyway.

He was the best thing that could have happened to the game, at a time when baseball had nearly squandered its fandom forever. Nomo was something successful, something inspirational. In a league of tobacco spitters, tantrum throwers, contract holdouts, coke sniffers, wife beaters, tax dodgers, autograph duckers, freeway speeders, front-office sexists, racists and xenophobes, Hideo Nomo was the precisely right man at precisely the right time.

So, even if I did not invent Nomomania, if perhaps I popularized it, color me pleased. Hideo Nomo and baseball, they now go together in the ol’ USA like hot dogs and appurupai . “He’s been kicking butt in Japan for years,” was the colorful way it was put by first-base coach Jesse Barfield of the Houston Astros, who himself played the 1993 season in Japan. “And now he’s kicking butt in America.”

I cannot say “kicking butt” in Japanese. I had enough trouble with apple pie.