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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

FEVER PITCHER

Japan's Nomo Hideo Is Beating the Americans at Their Own Game


QUESTION: WHAT'S THE GOOD NEWS FOR JAPANESE THESE DAYS? ANSWER: THE TORNADO.

That's not a typhoon raging in the Pacific but the nickname for Nomo Hideo -- a 26-year-old Japanese rookie pitcher who has taken American baseball by storm. In a year that has been marked by a string of disasters, including the Kobe earthquake, the Tokyo subway gassing, a sluggish economy and weak political leadership, news of Nomo is just what many Japanese need to lift their sagging spirits. These days not an hour goes by in Japan without someone mentioning his name on television. Says Tokyo sports writer Niomiya Seijun: "His single pitch is worth more than 100 visits of Prime Minister Murayma to Washington."

Indeed, in just five months with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Osaka-born pitcher has spawned a huge fan club in the U.S. as well as Japan. At Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles a fortnight ago, Nomo led the team to a 7-0 victory over the archrival San Francisco Giants. The game was played before a sellout crowd of 53,551 -- the largest this season. The fact that this happened at a time when many baseball fans are staying home to punish players for their protracted strike last year was considered little short of a miracle. "Nomo fever hits L.A.," read a headline in one newspaper. Declared sportswriter Bob Nightengale of the Los Angeles Times: "Nomo is creeping toward immortality."

Last week, in a game against the Colorado Rockies in front of 46,295 fans, Nomo struck out 13 batters, pushing his tally to 50 strike-outs in four consecutive games and beating the existing record of 49 set by legendary Dodger Sandy Koufax. Nomo's earned run average -- basically, the number of times opposing players score -- came down to 2.05, the second best in the National League (Koufax in 1966: 1.73). And on July 2, Nomo became the first Japanese to be named to the National League All-Star Team.

Nomo signed with the Dodgers early this year after retiring from professional baseball in Japan. As a rookie, his first-year salary is the major-league minimum -- $119,000. But it's a measure of his exceptional pitching ability that the Dodgers' management is widely reported to have paid him a signing bonus of $2 million. Unlike many highly paid, high-living American pros, though, Nomo is a veritable recluse. He lives alone in a Los Angeles apartment -- wife Kikuko and three-year-old son Takahiro returned to Japan after a brief stay (though they'll be back for the All-Star game). He is quiet and serious. When he leaves the mound at the end of each inning, he shows little emotion beyond puffing his cheeks in something of a sigh. Nor is he given to telling jokes or playing pranks, considered an essential part of the game by many American players.

His reserve hasn't kept him from scaling the heights of the sport, however. Nomo started playing softball in school in Osaka at eight, graduating to baseball ("hardball") three years later. After finishing senior high, he joined the Nippon Steel company's team for just $600 a month. He thought he would stick with that for about 10 years and then, like most Japanese men, work in a regular job with the company for the rest of his life.

But his talent took over. While still at Nippon Steel, he was chosen for national teams that played in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1989 Asian Amateur Baseball Championship. Soon spotted, he was approached by no fewer than eight Japanese pro teams. He signed with the Kintetsu Buffaloes but eventually had a falling-out with the team manager over his unconventional pitching. In baseball, as in other things, Japanese culture prefers conformity. That experience, plus a long-cherished desire to play in a U.S. major league, took Nomo to America.

The 1.85-meter hurler uses a unique style of pitching also known as the "tornado." It begins with him throwing his hands far behind his head -- ball hidden from the batter -- before coming around for the release. The speed of the delivery: 150 kph. "It's very effective," Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda told Asiaweek. "It's difficult for batters to pick up the ball. It's deceptive." Agrees pitching coach Dave Wallace: "When you combine the stuff that he has and the aptitude and the competitiveness of this young man, it's just a wonderful package." Rivals are also impressed. "Everything he does makes you look real ugly," says Al Martin, a fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, recently beaten by the Dodgers.

Nomo's first starts with the Dodgers, however, were anything but spectacular. While he threw an impressive number of strike-outs, he was also wild, walking so many batters -- 25 in his first six games -- that he was pulled out in early innings. Dodger fans and the team management had unhappy flashbacks to the start of the 1994 season when rookie pitcher Park Chan Ho, 20, arrived to become the first Korean in the majors. The press and the big local Korean community fanned what was quickly dubbed Chan Ho-mania. But Park struggled on the mound, gave up too many walks and, after a little more than two weeks, was sent back to the Dodgers' minor league team in San Antonio.

So when Nomo had trouble in his early starts, "a lot of people got nervous," recalls one source. "The team had spent all that money and there was all the hoopla." Suddenly, though, he found himself -- and true Nomo-mania took off. For Japanese, there was the added fillip of one of their countrymen beating the Americans at their own game. As one TV newscaster put it: "No matter how hard he attacks Americans, no one complains or criticizes Japan for that." At Dodger Stadium, U.S. fans grab caps, T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing Nomo's name and number, 16. "The fans come just for him," says Lori Vasquez, who runs a novelty stand. "He's our top seller."

But the modest Nomo wants as little attention as possible. When the crowd went wild during the Dodger-Giants game, he left the mound virtually ignoring the standing ovation. Fans refused to let him get away, though, and he broke into a wide grin, doffing his cap. Later he admitted: "I am proud when I come to the ballpark. The fans give me a good feeling." But he quickly added, "The win today is not mine only -- it's the team's win." Nomo may be more of an individualist than his old manager liked, but he is still very Japanese.


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