By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
The face was familiar – stoic, reserved, all but expressionless. Hideo Nomo seemed as usual on his return to Dodger Stadium on Aug. 10, the guest of honor as the team gave away Nomo bobblehead dolls recalling his 1996 no-hitter.
The media – many, of course, from Japan – were there, but certainly in nowhere near the numbers of reporters that hounded him in his playing days, documenting his every move and comment. As he sat in the Dodgers’ new press conference room, Nomo seemed comparatively relaxed, but was candid in admitting otherwise.
“Normally, when I was on the field, I wasn’t really nervous,” he said. “But today, I’m a little nervous to be back.”
The anxiety subsided slightly when he emerged from the home dugout and onto the field. Before his named was announced, a great many in the sell-out crowd rose to their feet and cheered at the sight of him.
It wasn’t until a particularly familiar face was directly in front of him, however, that Nomo seemed completely at ease.
The comforting smile and following warm embrace came from none other than former manager Tommy Lasorda.
“I’m happy to see him. He came to Los Angeles to be with the Dodgers and he was like my son,” Lasorda said later.
After watching a video presentation on his Dodgers career on the stadium television screens, Nomo strode to the mound to throw a ceremonial first pitch.
Perhaps indulging in a bit a showmanship, Nomo grinned as he went into a somewhat deliberate impression of his own storied, twisting windup. He raised both hands high into the air, slowly contorted, turning his back to home plate. After holding the position briefly, he turned and tossed a soft but accurate pitch to former teammate Eric Karros.
“Out there on the mound, I felt like I wanted to pitch one more time,” he said.
Nomo, 44, is in Los Angeles with a team of junior high school All-Stars, who will play a series of exhibition games Aug. 21-22 at the Major League Baseball Youth Academy in Compton. In Japan, he has established his own amateur team and works regularly with young players. He said the best part of no longer playing himself is the time it allows to be spent with his family.
When Nomo debuted with the Dodgers in 1995, he landed like a storm out of nowhere. His unorthodox delivery – which earned him the nickname “Tornado” – confounded hitters. His most effective pitch, the wobbling, diving forkball, was as unpredictable as a box of old hand grenades, and could be as elusive to his own catchers as it was to opposing batters.
Starting that year’s All-Star game, Nomo struck out three of the six batters he faced, and at season’s end was named the National League rookie of the year. In his Major League career with eight different teams, he compiled a record of 123 wins and 109 losses with 1,918 strikeouts. He retired from playing in 2008.
Nomo’s single greatest game is arguably the one in Denver that was the subject of his bobblehead on Saturday. On a cool and drizzly evening on Sept. 17, 1996, the Japanese star adjusted his delivery to compensate for a soggy pitcher’s mound, abandoning his famous windup and throwing from the stretch. Working wisely and efficiently, he threw the first – and to date, only – no-hitter against the Rockies at hitter-friendly Coors Field.
In the final inning, the fans who braved the elements to witness history were firmly in support of Nomo’s effort, cheering with every strike and every out.
“I noticed the fans were cheering for me. After the game finished, I took off my cap and bowed to them,” remembered Nomo, who remains the only Japanese pitcher to toss a no-no in the majors, accomplishing the feat again in 2001 for the Boston Red Sox.
His move to the U.S. was met with some consternation in Japan, however. After a bitter contract dispute with the Kintestu Buffaloes in 1994, Nomo and his agent, Don Nomura, exploited a then-loophole in the Nippon Professional Baseball rules that allowed any retired player to join any team in the world. Taking advantage of the loophole, Nomo left for the Dodgers and was skewered by some in the Japanese press as disloyal to his homeland.
The criticism was stopped cold in its tracks when Nomo became a global sensation for the Dodgers. “Nomomania” followed him to any stadium the Dodgers visited, and scores of Asian and Asian American players and fans had found a hero who felt like one of their own.
On Saturday, he deflected the notion that he is responsible for the wave of Japanese players that has followed him to the majors.
“I’m not sure about my own influence, but basically to see Major League baseball in Japan on television and also see the Major League All-Stars touring in Japan, that was an influence,” he said. “At that time, there was no way we thought a Japanese player could compete on the same level.
“I wasn’t thinking about the players that might follow me. I was concentrating on doing the best I could, and the people around me, like [former Dodgers owner Peter]O’Malley and Tommy Lasorda and all the staff that supported me, these people made it easier to focus on baseball. I have nothing but appreciation for them.”
Nomo said he became a pitcher simply because “I couldn’t really play any other position.”
Lasorda said history will always shine a favorable light on Nomo, who was not the first Japanese player in the bigs.
“He was the one that stayed,” the former manager insisted. “He was a great example and represented his country with the highest degree of class and paved the way for many other Japanese players.”
Lasorda added that he hoped his guidance helped players like Nomo – and later Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park – who came from overseas and were thrust into the spotlight of professional baseball in the States, all the while dealing with issues such language barriers and homesickness. He said that Nomo’s work with upcoming players is evidence of his dedication to the game.
“He can set the pace for young players. They look up to him with respect,” Lasorda said. “You don’t see that as often in the major leagues these days, but everybody has respect for Hideo.”