By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
Hideo Nomo stepped out of his car and strode up the steps of the Japanese American National Museum on Tuesday, wearing the stoic non-expression that became a sort of tool of survival during his frenzied days as a Dodger pitcher.
That business-like demeanor disappeared in an instant, when he opened the museum door and saw the face that invariably brings a smile to his own: that of Tommy Lasorda.
“I’m so glad to see you,” he said quietly to his former manager, as Lasorda hugged him like a son.
Nomo was visiting JANM for a personal tour of the current exhibit “Dodgers: Brotherhood of the Game,” running through Sept. 14. He was greeted by JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura, former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley and Acey Kohrogi, former chief of Asian player operations for the team.
A small gathering accompanied the former Dodgers star through the exhibit that traces the team’s history as well as the role it has played in community-building and civil rights, and the enormous impact it has had on the globalization of the game of baseball.
Nomo, who in July was enshrined in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, listened as tales were spun from memories old and not-so-old, and from fan recollections of those in the group.
Always full of verve and at the ready with a priceless story, Lasorda was generous in retelling many of his experiences with the team, especially in the section of the gallery dedicated to Nomo’s career.
Among the Osaka native’s achievements celebrated is the no-hitter he threw at Denver’s batter-friendly Coors Field on Sept. 17, 1996. It is the only no-hit game that stadium — known for its mile-high altitude and lofty home runs — has ever seen, and it came on a drizzly night that left the pitcher’s mound slushy and slippery. The conditions prompted Nomo to abandon his trademark twisting windup and pitch most of the game from the stretch position.
Asked if he would have had any coaching to offer in that situation, Lasorda (who had retired as manager earlier in the season) said, “What could I tell him? ‘Be careful!’”
Kimura introduced Nomo to a handful of the museum’s volunteers and supporters, emphasizing what he meant to a generation of fans on both sides of the Pacific.
“You are a sporting figure, but you are also a figure of admiration for Japanese and people of Japanese heritage around the world,” said Kimura, citing how Nomo’s 1995 arrival in the U.S. opened the door for a wave of players from Asia that has continued steadily, to the point of no longer being seen as a novelty.
“I wanted to play in the major leagues — that was my foremost feeling when I first came,” Nomo said later. “But with the support of the Dodgers, as well as the Dodger fans supporting me, I think that was a major factor in being able to achieve some positive results.”
Former JANM volunteer and World War II veteran Harry Nakada was among those who spoke briefly with the Dodger great, and said the occasion was truly special.
“I played ball in the service, but I wasn’t very good,” said Nakada, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. “Having someone here like Nomo, someone who was so great in the game, is a wonderful experience.”
Nomo seemed humbled by the attention and the tribute posed by the exhibit, but he was fully relaxed, unencumbered by the usual crush of media that normally follows his public movements – even to this day, six years after his retirement from playing. Thanks to the gracious invitation of Kimura and Kohrogi, only The Rafu Shimpo was afforded this look at the often reclusive Nomo in a very private and casual setting.
“For me to be here and see all that support laid out in this exhibit is a great feeling for me,” he added.
Nomo has also been in Los Angeles for last weekend’s goodwill series of games at the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy in Compton. Over the last five summers, he has brought a team of high school All-Stars to play a series against a team of their American peers. The U.S. players will again this year be managed by former Angels and Seattle Mariners star Shigetoshi Hasegawa.
During a prime rib dinner held at Lawry’s in Beverly Hills last Thursday evening, O’Malley, long known for his generosity in dealing with young baseball hopefuls from Japan, reminded the teenage athletes of the rare and special nature of this experience.
“This is a priceless opportunity, so I hope you take full advantage of it, and enjoy it to the fullest,” he said.
Pitcher Jouichiro Maki, 14, said Nomo is a quiet, patient coach who teaches by example. His teammate, 15-year-old Shota Hasegawa, was still somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer fact that he was on the team at all.
“I can’t believe he’s actually coaching us,” Hasegawa whispered. “This is an amazing surprise for me.”
After the second of Sunday’s two games at the Urban Youth Academy, Nomo said the focus has been squarely on developing the skills of the young players, and that the long-term value of the exchange program won’t be seen for a decade or more.
“We can’t expect to see much in the way of results yet,” he explained. “The true results will be 10 to 15 years from now, when some of these players are playing professionally in Japan or in America. Hopefully, they will look back on this experience and see it as a contributing factor.”
Troy Maki, a student at Mark Keppel High in Alhambra, pitched one inning for the MLB academy on Sunday. He said it’s interesting to see the differences in approaching the game taken by the Japanese team.
“It seems they are very disciplined,” Maki explained. “The always hustle and the pitchers always seem to hit their spots.”
Maki said the best part of the weekend was socializing with his Japanese counterparts, although they all hand to find ways to overcome the language barrier.
“We used a lot of hand signals,” he said.
Team Japan’s Jouichiro Maki found it interesting to bat against a pitcher with the same surname – he and Troy are not related, as far as he knows.
“The American players are really big,” he said. “But they run all-out, even on a ground-out to second base. That’s a good way to play.”
In addition to the high schoolers, Nomo guides non-drafted, semi-professional players in a development league he founded in Osaka. He is also helping to preserve some of his own past as a founding member of Historic Dodger Town, a resort and training facility at the team’s former Spring Training location in Vero Beach, Fla. He partnered in the venture with O’Malley and former Dodger pitcher Chan Ho Park, who is also featured in the JANM exhibition. He said his success is a key to inspiring the dreams of up-and-coming players.
“The reality of Major League Baseball is one thing, but for me to be able to show how a player can succeed in professional baseball, here or in Japan, on the highest level gives young players something to look forward to, something to strive for, and to helps to create goals for them,” Nomo explained.
Japan’s consul general in Los Angeles, Harry H. Horinouchi, attended the JANM gathering with his wife, Sabine, and thought back to the days when every game Nomo pitched was broadcast live in Japan, regardless of the local start time.
“We watched every game in our office, and it didn’t matter how much work we had,” Horinouchi recalled. “I was never a ball player, but looking at someone from our home having such great success was incredible. No one threw the way he did.”
At one point, Lasorda leaned over and said quietly to Nomo, “Never forget, you were not only a great pitcher. You are a great person. The way you represented yourself and an entire nation is tremendous, and I will always be proud of you.”
Asked about it later, Nomo deflected the praise and again took the opportunity to express his feelings about the weekend’s high school goodwill series.
“Just seeing young players enjoying the game makes me smile.”
Hideo Nomo’s All-Japan 15-U team has traveled the last five summers to play teams of the MLB Urban Youth Academy USA team in the Japan-USA International Junior High School Baseball Federation Series, held at the Compton campus of El Camino College. For information, call (310) 763-3479 (English) or the Japanese Educational Resource Center at (310) 373-4888 (Japanese).