Cover Story : Just How Big Is Hideo Nomo? : His First Season in America Went Way Beyond Mania. How the Dodger Pitcher Sent a Jolt of Energy Through a Sport That Was on the Disabled List After the Strike.

<i> Bob Nightengale covers the Dodgers for The Times. </i>

Hideo Nomo tilts his head back, the warm sunlight bathing his puffy cheeks, and runs through his first year of life in America.

Let’s see, there was his first major league game . . . his first victory . . . his selection to the National League All-Star team . . . his 16 strikeouts against the Pittsburgh Pirates . . . his near no-hitter.

He abruptly stops and closes his eyes, his face showing an odd mixture of relief and appreciation.


He reaches into his wallet, fumbling through the see-through plastic, and pulls out his most prized possession. This one will be as cherished as the autographs, baseballs and pictures he has collected throughout the season. This is the proof that he survived his journey to America, the item that allows him to proudly blend in.

It is a California driver’s license.

This may be insignificant to anyone else past the age of 16, particularly since Nomo doesn’t own a car in the United States, rarely cashes checks and, at 27, needs no identification to buy beer.

And it’s not as if he plans to become a U.S. citizen; he will return to his home in Osaka, Japan, where he is a reigning hero, as soon as the baseball season ends. But what the license does signify is something Nomo, in his wildest dreams, never thought would happen--that he would fit so snugly into the culture so soon into his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Nomo gets a kick out of calling the local pizza place near his West Los Angeles home and having them ask if he wants “the usual.” He loves to walk along the Venice Beach boardwalk with his wife, Kikuko, and 3-year-old son, Takahiro, just another family out for a stroll.

It’s only when he ventures into Dodger Stadium, or any other baseball ballpark, that he runs into the kinds of problems that he encounters in Japan, where his fame prevents him from venturing outside his home without hordes of photographers following him. This is when he becomes Hideo Nomo, the great Dodger pitcher, the talk of the baseball world--and a much-needed new star for a game whose popular image took a beating during the eight-month player strike.

“Nomo night have been the best thing that happened to baseball this year,” says Bud Selig, acting baseball commissioner. “Baseball needs good human-interest stories, and the No. 1 story in baseball has been Nomo.


“Considering what baseball has gone through, with the strike and all of our labor problems, the timing couldn’t have been better.”

Says Dodger teammate Todd Worrell: “Baseball needs Nomo. He’s brought excitement back into the game, [and] certainly to Los Angeles. He’s helping restore a lot of the luster this game has lost. We should take advantage of it.”

So, for Nomo, the season hasn’t been all strikeouts and beachside strolls. This is L.A., after all, where celebrity has its price. And its distractions, which seemed to finally catch up with him last month, when his pitching went flat, and Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda vowed to rein in his hectic schedule.

“I still have trouble getting used to all of this attention,” Nomo says through his interpreter, Michael Okumura, 28, who’s been alongside Nomo since he entered the country, and previously was the interpreter for Japanese minor-league pitcher Makato Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners. “Everybody wants my autograph. In Japan, it’s not like that. They just want to know the person. Then they can go tell their friends. Here, everybody wants me to sign. Maybe it’s because I sign in Japanese. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to all the autographs, but I’m learning.”

Nomo giggles, shrugs his huge shoulders and rolls his eyes toward the heavens.

How could this all be possible? His defecting from the Japanese Professional Baseball league one moment, sending a two-minute film clip to all the U.S. major league teams, playing catch for a few minutes with the Dodgers during his tryout, signing a $2-million bonus, and becoming the hottest thing in Southern California since ahi tuna. Witness the fans who come in sellout numbers to watch him humble opposing batters. Longtime baseball scouts claim that Nomo’s forkball is the best they’ve ever seen. Hitters find it impossible to distinguish between his forkball and fastball, often leaving them futilely swinging at balls in the dirt.

“I don’t think any of us ever expected anything like this,” says Don Nomura, his agent. “Now I’ve got my phone ringing off the hook with endorsements, advertisers, people wanting to do movies, write books, everything.”


Because of Nomo, baseball will never be the same, in Japan or the United States. For the first time, major league teams have sent scouts to Japan looking for the next Nomo. The Japanese Professional Baseball league now has validation for its belief that its play is close to the major-league level--the proof being Nomo’s success. And it wants to make sure there are no other defectors, so that one day there might be a true World Series between the major leagues’ best and the best of Japan.

“The creative minds on both sides should be sitting down right now and planning a meeting of dream teams in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics,” former Dodger Bobby Valentine, manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League of Japanese Professional Baseball, has said. “They should feed off the interest Nomo has generated to create a real worldwide competition. The way out of baseball’s doldrums is in new venues. The future of the game is in international competition.

“If 50% or more of the TVs here are tuned to Nomo when he pitches, imagine how many would watch the Dodgers play the Tokyo Giants. Nomo should represent a step forward. It would be a real shame if he only serves to close the door.”

Nomo’s mind churned through the night at his Osaka home as he desperately tried to fall asleep. He tried lying on his left side, then his right, then on his back, then his stomach. He crossed his legs, uncrossed them, pulled his arms tight to his chest and then spread apart.

Every few minutes his eyes darted to the clock. One a.m. . . . 3:15 . . . 4:20. His chest hammered. Hold on, he told himself, hold on. It was just before dawn when he sat up, and chills ran through his body. In a few hours, on this late February day, he would be leaving on a plane for another continent. He was going to spring training to pitch for the Dodgers, to a country where he had no family, friends or acquaintances.

He thought of all the conversations over the last few months, the horrified looks on faces when he told them of his plans. Some of his closest friends, those he could trust to be honest, told him he was stupid. He’d never forget the looks on his parents’ faces. They acted as if he was joining a religious cult. Even his wife, the only person to whom he could confide his dream, had difficulty accepting his decision.


With his $1.2-million salary, Nomo was making plenty of money. He had his fancy house and luxury cars. He was a star pitcher, one of the most famous athletes in all the land, and now he was replaying everyone’s fears that he was going to throw it all away.

For what? To show he could pitch in the major leagues? To show that he could make the Dodgers’ pitching rotation? What if he failed--then what? He would not only be disgracing himself, but an entire country, by single-handedly setting back Japanese baseball.

“It’s my life, that’s the only way I could look at it,” Nomo recalls, speaking in hushed tones. “I knew what the risks were. I knew everybody was watching. But I also knew that if I didn’t do this, I would spend the rest of my life regretting it.

“That worst that could have happened is I didn’t make it. I wasn’t good enough. Is that so bad? Is that something to be ashamed about? I could have handled failure. Sometimes I wonder what’s harder, handling failure or success? This is much more different than I ever imagined.”

Now, six months after entering the country, Nomo has become Michael Jackson in a baseball uniform. The moment he appears on the field, women shriek, men forget their age, children flock toward him. The pitcher whose prowess was known only to a handful of baseball scouts and officials in the United States is as much a household name as, say, Ken Griffey Jr. Soon you’ll be able to see him in a Japanese-made car commercial, selling life insurance, drinking coffee and donning sports apparel, when he isn’t hawking tennis shoes or sunglasses. You can buy Nomo leather jackets and Nomo dolls. There’s even a Nomo credit card offered by a Japanese telephone company.

“We’ve had 25 other commercial opportunities, too,” Nomura said, “but I don’t want to over-saturate him.”


While Fernandomania was huge, Valenzuela memorabilia was not. With Nomo, the Dodgers can’t keep enough gear in stock. They sell anything and everything with Nomo’s picture and name on it, making millions, although the organization remains mum on exactly how much. At one recent game, a trio of businessmen walked out of the Dodgers’ gift shop with three $150 Nomo Dodger jackets, three $25 Nomo T-shirts and three $10 Nomo baseballs. They passed on the $50 Nomo sweat shirts, the $15 limited-edition Nomo baseballs, the $5 Nomo pennants and the $3 Nomo pins. “The best gift for friends now is a Nomo T-shirt,” says Tatsuhiko Oshika, a visitor from Osaka. “I saved my money to buy these T-shirts because they are not sold in Japan.” There’s even a Japanese restaurant at the stadium, with sushi sold in the stands. Not to mention the information booth set up for the increasing number of Japanese fans who show up for Nomo’s games.

“I’ve heard so much about Nomo, but this is the first time I’ve seen Nomo pitch,” says Kawai Chiyuki, an insurance salesman. “I’ll be back. You better believe it, I’ll be back.”

Lasorda recalls the oil company vice president who took a flight in from Tokyo just to see Nomo pitch. Apparently he wasn’t worried about the 14-day advance purchase price or a Saturday layover. He was headed back to Japan the next day.

What they are coming to see is the 6-foot, 2-inch, 210-pounder known in Japan as “The Tornado” for his windup that begins oh-so-slowly, with his arms high above his head, a pivot with his right leg, continuing until his back faces home plate. Then comes the furious and explosive delivery. The left leg and torso hurtle toward the plate. Then the head. And then the right arm. It produces the finest forkball in the major leagues, and mixed in with a 90-m.p.h. fastball, it has dominated the National League since late May. “He’s got great stuff, but that delivery . . . I’m surprised he doesn’t have back problems the way he spins out there,” says Cincinnati Reds All-Star shortstop Barry Larkins. “It’s very different, and if you get caught up in looking at it, you’re in big trouble.”

It wasn’t his back but his elbow that proved the problem in mid-August, when Nomo complained of soreness after struggling in three consecutive starts. It was understandable. He had pitched only 114 innings last season in Japan after missing most of the second half with shoulder tendinitis, and already had pitched 153 innings entering his final start in August.

But Lasorda believed that it was the unrelenting attention that had taken its toll. He brought Nomo into his office and urged him to curtail his activities, saying that it was time to say “no.”


“The guy can’t even walk around without being bothered,” Lasorda says. “Everybody wants a piece of him. We’re going to try to minimize it.”

“He’s not going to come out and say it,” says his agent, Nomura, “but maybe that’s what he needs. Maybe he needs to be left alone for a while. There’s been so much pressure on him.”

Part of the pressure is coming from his homeland, where Nomo’s success is viewed as “fantastic, so stunning, so beautiful,” says Yoshimori Hesono of the Sports Nippon newspaper. “He’s more famous than Sadaharu Oh. My God, he’s even more popular than our prime minister, Murayama.”

“Why wouldn’t he be more popular?” asks Nomura. “He’s certainly doing a better job.”

“Hideo Nomo is the greatest sports story perhaps in the world this year,” says Tim Brosnan, chief operating officer for Major League Baseball International. His games have certainly altered life in Japan. Thousands camp out to watch his starts, beamed in by satellite to big-screen televisions in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Sendai, Sapporo, Fukuoka and Masuyama. When he was forced to leave his July 25 start against the Houston Astros because of a split fingernail, it was front-page news in Japan.

“You’ve got to realize what he means to that country,” says Kent Brown, who spent three years in Osaka and was Nomo’s interpreter during the All-Star game. “My friends from Japan tell me, ‘Things are not going good. We have a recession, we have terrorists dropping poisonous gas in our subways, but you know something, we still have Nomo.’ ”

Hidemi Kittaka of the Tushin news service says, “Men like me are so proud of Nomo, and what he’s doing for our country. And you talk to women now, and they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Nomo was so cute.’ It doesn’t make you feel too good when your girlfriend is saying that, but because it’s Nomo, you can understand.”


In Dodger President Peter O’Malley’s office, there is only one photograph of a Dodger player: Nomo. “The fans have fallen in love with him,” he says. They wanted to see someone new, someone fresh. They have savored every moment.”

“I never thought I’d see anything like Fernandomania again in my life,” says Dodger broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, who was Fernando Valenzuela’s interpreter. “This is the closest thing I’ve seen to Fernandomania, and it’s bringing back very sweet memories of 1981. Fernando was shutting everybody out that year, and Nomo is striking everybody out.”

Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully will frequently use Japanese phrases during Nomo’s starts. During one recent game, he scurried from his broadcast booth to pin down a Japanese journalist. He was counting Nomo’s strikeouts in Japanese, but he could only count as high as six, roko in Japanese, when he realized that Nomo would strike out more than that.

Seichi, hachi, ku, ju ,” Scully scribbled on a note pad after the quick lesson. “Seven, eight, nine, ten.”

A few innings later, when Nomo struck out his 11th batter, Scully panicked.

“That’s strikeout number . . . oh, I don’t know how to say 11. Let’s just call it ju plus one.”

By now, the story of Nomo’s signing with the Dodgers is well-known. Once he declared that he was retiring from Japanese baseball at the age of 26, major league baseball gave its permission for all teams to negotiate with him. The Dodgers, at O’Malley’s instruction, telephoned Nomura the day of the news. They had heard promising things about a “nasty” forkball. After stops in late January and early February in Seattle and San Francisco--and with meetings already scheduled with the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins--Nomo tossed a few easy balls to the Dodgers’ pitching coach.

Despite shoulder tendinitis that cut short his 1994 season, the Dodgers offered Nomo a rookie year salary of $109,000 and a $1-million bonus. Nomura told them it wasn’t enough and made plans to continue on to New York. So O’Malley found another million, and Nomo was a Dodger.

“There was just something about him,” says Dodger executive vice president Fred Claire. “Here’s a guy who had everything in Japan. He had fame, fortune, a good life. He gave it all up just so he could pitch against the best. That impressed us. That impressed us a lot.”

Terry Reynolds, Dodger scouting director, has said: “It takes a unique personality with a real desire to come here and play. How often do you see one of our star players in the prime of his career leaving his family and giving up his salary and security to go there?”


Although the Japanese press considered Nomo’s signing a major story, it drew little attention in the United States, despite the fact that Nomo led the Japanese Pacific League in strikeouts for four straight years, winning at least 17 games a year over four 130-game seasons.

When Nomo arrived at the Dodgers’ spring-training camp in Vero Beach in late February, he was making a bid to become only the second Japanese player to make a major league team, 30 years after reliever Masanori Murakami pitched for the Giants in 1964 and 1965, his record for the first season 1-0, and for the second 4-1.

Yet Nomo’s right shoulder still was so weak that he was unable to pitch off a mound. The Dodgers immediately put him on an extensive rehabilitation program to strengthen the shoulder and his condition. After all, he’d showed up to camp 10 pounds overweight.

There were other concerns. The Dodgers were alarmed at the hostilities between Nomo and the Japanese press. Nomo’s signing was supposed to be a brilliant public relations maneuver, if nothing else, yet most of the Japanese media considered him to be rude and a bore. Sure, he was a star in Japan, particularly in 1990, when he won Japan’s rookie of the year award. But he was a recluse with the media, stemming largely from incidents after the 1990 season, when he became engaged to Kikuko. Wherever they went, photographers waited, and it angered him to find their pictures in every tabloid and magazine on the checkout counters. Now, of course, he has no choice.

This spring, Nomo talked only once every four days, giving short, dull answers, and he occasionally snapped at reporters. The Japanese journalists were offended.

He accused members of the Japanese media of fabricating stories. He claimed his shoulder was fine; they wrote that it hurt. He pronounced himself in fine physical shape; the media said he was fat. He continued to say that life was great in America; the media were not so sure.


The reporters knew that their editors were craving as many stories as possible about Nomo, but what could they write when the man wasn’t talking? It took months for him to reveal what his father did for a living in Osaka. The huge secret? He’s a postman.

Their relations with Nomo became so strained that when the baseball strike ended and the Korean pitcher, Chan Ho Park, came to spring training camp, they openly rooted for Park.

“I don’t like him,” reporter Yoji Takeshita of the Tokyo Chunichi Sports said of Nomo. “I don’t like the way he talks, like he’s making a fool out of us. He doesn’t say, ‘You’re stupid,’ but it’s like he’s saying, ‘You’re stupid.’ I wish he could be like Park Chan Ho.”

Said Hidemi Kittaka of the Kyodo News: “They call me a Nomo sympathizer, but I can understand. He just doesn’t want attention. I guess it would be like, maybe, covering Steve Carlton?”

Nomo has listened all season to the complaints of the Japanese media, and now he is hearing whispers from the American media as well. Everyone wants more time with him. They want interesting, insightful answers. They want to know what Nomo really thinks and feels. Yet he refuses to bare his soul, let alone convey many of his thoughts.

“They write about too many private things,” Nomo says of the Japanese press. “They’re like that paper I see at the checkout counter--you know, the one they call the National Enquirer. I’m always checking on what those guys are writing about me. If it happens again, I don’t ever want them to write about me. I’m not saying everybody is that way, but they don’t understand me, and I don’t understand them.”


It doesn’t really matter. Not with the way Nomo is pitching this season. When you’re the ace of the Dodgers’ staff, leading the league in strikeouts and tying Sandy Koufax’s record of eight or more strikeouts in six or more games, you don’t have to say a word to become accepted.

“I think things would be better if everybody just left him alone,” Dodger catcher Mike Piazza says. “It’s ridiculous. You come in the clubhouse, and everyone’s waiting for him. I like the dude. I mean, one day he gave me this entire video machine setup, just for putting up with all of the crap, I think. Sometimes he feels sorry for me, too. I mean, dude, I get asked some of the worst questions. People ask, ‘What’s it like to catch Nomo?’ I tell them, ‘well, you squat down, put your glove up. . . . ‘ I mean, what do you think it’s like?

“And then there’s always the question in every city: ‘How do you communicate?’ I’m so sick of that. There’s never been a problem. He knows more than he’s letting on, believe me.

“In the beginning, I learned three words in Japanese. Ogenkidesuka , which means ‘how ya doin’?’ Shuchu , which means concentrate. And when, say, there are runners on first and second and one out, I holler to him, ‘Double play!’ ”

Nomo’s popularity stole not only the spotlight at the July All-Star game in Arlington, Tex., it stole the entire stage. It was the first time the game’s stars had all convened since the eight-month players’ strike, and they sat there incredulously, ignored by the mass of media who tried to extract Nomo’s views on everything from the O.J. Simpson trial to his favorite sushi restaurant.

“I’ve been to 11 All-Star games,” San Diego Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn was saying, “but this one will be the most memorable because of Nomo. Barry Bonds and I were sitting in here saying, ‘This is one of the few All-Star games we weren’t pestered to death. All we had to do was watch Nomo.

“We were watching people following him around for two days. It got to a point where he couldn’t even go to the bathroom without people following him. I mean, there was a camera crew that literally followed him through the door. Then they realized it was a bathroom and turned around. You should have seen their faces,” Gwynn says. “I’ll be telling that story for years.”


No one relished the moment more than Nomo. He arrived five hours before the game. He read congratulatory faxes from everyone from Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to Ichiro Yoshikuni, commissioner of the Japanese Professional Baseball league.

“Until now, we have seen many Americans coming to play in Japan,” Yoshikuni says. “It is a wonderful thing that we now have people like Nomo going here and doing a fine job.”

Nomo’s success, however, could cause great difficulty for Japanese baseball. While Nomo has brought Japanese baseball instant credibility, Yoshikuni fears that it might also prompt its ruination. There are at least three Japanese pitchers--Masumi Kuwata, Shietoshi Hasegawa and Hideki Irabu--who are considered good enough to pitch in the major leagues. They are among at least six pitchers who are contemplating leaving Japan for the United States, and more could be on the way. Although Japanese players must wait 10 years to declare free agency, they could simply retire, just as Nomo did. The 12 Japanese Professional Baseball league team owners had a special meeting to address the issue during their own All-Star break. The owners are quite nervous, and as one says, “While we are quite proud of Nomo, we don’t want any more Nomos.”

The retirement loophole was discovered by Los Angeles attorney Arn Tellem. The Japanese contracts don’t prevent a retired player from playing for another team in another country.

“There were two critical aspects,” Tellem has said. “The Japanese had to recognize that the escape provision was legitimate, and the commissioner’s office had to accept it and acknowledge that Nomo couldn’t be prevented from signing with an American team, although they initially tried to prevent it.”

Will this cause a rush of Japanese players to enter the country, or will it have little bearing?


“Nomo made the move, and others will want to do the same,” says Jim Lefebvre, the Oakland A’s hitting instructor, who played and coached for five years in Japan. “The great players want to play in the best league. It’s going to be like it was in the Negro leagues after the majors finally opened the door for Jackie Robinson.”

Others are not so sure.

“It’s a question of motivation,” Valentine has said. “I mean, the players here make good money, they can play until they drop, they have potential jobs for life, and they know the language, food and travel. . . . I don’t know how many other Japanese players have the same desire to delve into the unknown.”

“I think most Japanese players would consider the risk and stay in Japan,” Nomura, Nomo’s agent, has said. “It’s very difficult to throw everything away and start a new life. I also think Nomo made a real history-making move, but the real measure of it is that it should enhance the position of Japanese players, who have been restricted by a system similar to the Communist Party, with no reserve rules, no free agency, no real voice in negotiations. They have been like puppets on a string to the corporations owning the teams. Whether they follow Nomo or use it as leverage, they are now in position to negotiate a better deal.”

Nomura has attempted to introduce a player-management system in Japan like Marvin Miller did for major league baseball players, but has been stonewalled by the Japanese Professional Baseball league owners and general managers. “I think Japanese baseball is afraid to open up the market, just like the Japanese economy and the car market. It’s the same concept. It’s always been closed.

“They’re putting a lock on the door. They’re going to do their best to stop people from going to the States. I mean, look around, you’ve got 4,000 professional baseball players in this country and three Asian players. Is that right?”

“The most significant part is that for 30 years the Japanese didn’t know how their players compared to ours,” says Lasorda. “What he’s done has been a big boost to their baseball program. I guarantee, you, the next contracts they give out won’t have that [retirement] loophole.”


Certainly, virtually any top-quality Japanese player wishing to come to the United States will be welcomed with open arms after seeing the money Nomo has generated for the Dodgers. Wherever he pitches--New York, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Houston or Philadelphia--Japanese and Japanese American fans flock to see him. The National League recently sent out a memo to all clubs demanding that their mascots act responsibly and sensibly in dealing with players, which may have been prompted by Nomo’s presence. In Houston, the Astros’ mascot, Orbit, karate-chopped a stack of Styrofoam boards. At a Marlins game in Florida, someone dressed in a Godzilla suit roamed the stands.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Nomo says. “I just want to be accepted as any other player, that’s all. I don’t want to be treated any better, or worse.”

Nomo’s teammates treat him like they would any rookie, which includes a few pranks. The players got together one night and stole his clothes, leaving in their place clothes from the disco era. They stood by waiting for Nomo’s reaction, not sure if he’d understand what had happened. But he laughed and shook his head. He caught on, all right, and went along with the gag.

“I thought it was funny,” Nomo says. “Not that I want them to do it a lot, but since I’m still a rookie, it was OK.”

There have been few communication problems. Okumura, Nomo’s interpreter, has been constantly by his side in the clubhouse. But nowadays, Nomo has enough confidence that he’ll actually venture alone to restaurants.

“It’s a lot easier for me now. Before, uh, how do I say this, every American I met looked the same. to me, all Americans looked alike, sort of how you Americans think Japanese people look alike. Now, I can tell the difference.”


“Baseball needs him,” says Fernando Valenzuela, the former Dodger pitching star who now plays for the San Diego Padres. “I remember in my rookie year, we had the strike in 1981, and what I did was very important for baseball. Well, now that we had another strike, we need somebody else to come through. We need Nomo.

“Maybe he can get people to come to the park again. Maybe he can be that attraction like I was. That would be nice for baseball.”

Valenzuela, who did not know a word of English when he joined the Dodgers from Sonora, Mexico, says the language barrier can be beneficial. Even when Nomo learns English, Valenzuela recommends, he should keep pretending ignorance. That’s what he did, and it worked like a charm.

“That way, he doesn’t have to talk to you [reporters],’ ” Valenzuela says, laughing. “Seriously, it’s good for him to be that way right now. It allows him to be a little more relaxed, to concentrate on his pitching. I know he’s got a lot of press that’s watching him, but the only thing he has to do is keep pitching, and don’t let the press and the pressure get to him. He knows that. He’s not a kid like I was; he has experience in professional baseball.”