Fans Can't Get Enough of Ace Pitcher Nomo

L.A. Dodgers' star Japanese performer leads all NL pitchers in strikeouts

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Pitcher Hideo Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who burst like a meteor out of the Land of the Rising Sun to become the starter on this year's winning National League All-Star squad, thrives on work.

The American pitcher Nomo most admires is Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox, whose baseball card was taped to Nomo's locker in Japan. With almost total command of a 90-m.p.h. split-fingered fastball and a forkball, the 6 ft., 1 in. Nomo still leads all National League pitchers in strikeouts (139, at press time.)

However, don't expect a rush by American baseball owners to airlift their best scouts to Japan to uncover more Hideo Nomos. While the talent is there, and includes position players as well as pitchers, the legal problems would be enormous. Years ago a lack of size and power sparked little interest among American owners in Japanese players.

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According to General Manager Fred Claire of the Dodgers, the Japanese major leagues (Central and Pacific) have strict rules that govern the movement of any player to a foreign country. In fact, contracts call for Japanese players to commit to a minimum of 10 years in their homeland.

But Nomo, who led Japan's Pacific League in wins and strikeouts for four consecutive years before an arm injury limited him to 30 appearances in 1994, was able to get around this rule by retiring from Japanese baseball. Once Nomo became a free agent, he was able to legally negotiate with any United States team.

A kid who could pitch

''The Dodgers have been very fortunate with Nomo because basically he is a special case,'' Claire says. ''Here was a kid who, after six years in Japan, wanted to see if he could pitch in one of our major leagues and was somehow able to leave the Kintetsu Buffaloes with the club's approval. It's never happened before and to me the Dodgers in Hideo got the Greg Maddux of Japanese baseball. Let me add that we have no intention of doing anything like this on a regular basis, nor are we going to send any scouts to Japan.''

Actually the Dodgers were only one of several major leagues franchises that were interested in Nomo, including their arch rival, the San Francisco Giants. Giant Manager Dusty Baker even had lunch with Nomo. ''But Nomo's agent did most of the talking,'' Baker says, ''and Hideo did most of the eating. We never came close to an agreement.'' Back in the 1964-65 season, Japanese pitcher Masanori Murakami appeared in 54 games with San Francisco, 53 of them in relief.

High salary was lure

Asked through interpreter Joe Satomi, Nomo told the Monitor that he signed with the Dodgers only because of his high regard for owner Peter O'Malley. The fact that O'Malley paid him an estimated signing bonus of $2 million might also have had something to do with it.

At first, Nomo had difficulty fitting into the framework of American baseball. Part of this was because of the language. He speaks almost no English. The emotional pull of being thousands of miles away from his homeland, wife, and three-year-old son also contributed to the problem.

Mechanically, he had trouble adjusting to rules that forced major changes in his hesitation delivery. In the US, too, umpires do not give pitchers the high strike (the pitch that's up around the letters) the way they do in Japan.

What Nomo looks like on the mound is TV impressionist Rich Little doing a modified version of former Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant turning his back on the hitter before he releases the ball. Basically his game face is right off the Sphinx.

The Dodgers now allow Nomo to turn his head and body only as far as third base (in Japan he was almost looking at the centerfielder before he threw) before challenging the hitter. Nevertheless, he continues to set up the hitter by thrusting his hands skyward and then stretching his arms like a man reaching for a box on a shelf before making his delivery.

Although Nomo has been averaging 11-plus strikeouts a game (that's Nolan Ryan territory), he has not escaped the home-run ball, nor has he always had his control in the early innings. Holding runners on base has also been an ongoing problem.

Since coming to the US, Nomo's pitching delivery has been modified by Dodger pitching coach Dave Wallace. This was done to improve Nomo's control after he fell behind in the count against opposing hitters.

In changing Nomo's delivery to conform to US rules, however, Dodger pitching coach Dave Wallace thinks he may have caused Nomo to finish with his left leg in an awkward position.

Once this is corrected, Wallace envisions a more controlled Nomo, although records show that he averaged five walks a game last year in Japan.

Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda, whose mouth opens and closes more times a day than all the refrigerator doors in Los Angeles, has probably been the most positive force on the team in making Nomo comfortable with his new environment.

''When the Dodgers got Hideo, I don't think most people realized that he had already pitched six years in the Japanese professional leagues and was an all-star,'' Lasorda says. ''I mean it wasn't like last year when we signed Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park to a contract, who was still learning his trade and was the equivalent of a sophomore in college. Nomo can pitch. He's really not a rookie. He knows what to do when he's finding the plate with his breaking ball. He's got a chance to win every game he starts.''

Nomo (called the Tornado in Japan, a nickname he has never encouraged) is beginning to stir the same interest among L.A. fans that turned Fernando Valenzuela into a financial bonanza in the 1980s. (At a recent series against the Astros in Houston, the first game drew 15,000 fans. At the second game with Nomo as starting pitcher, 25,000 more fans came to the Astrodome.)

The Japanese media, meanwhile, can't get enough of him. Twice this season the Dodgers have issued more than 100 credentials to the Japanese media, and once O'Malley even rented raised portable counters and chairs to handle the overflow.

No early burnout

So far rival teams seeing Nomo for the second time this season have adjusted to him no better than they did back in April and May. Although certain unnamed Dodger personnel were amazed when they learned that Nomo, while in Japan, had thrown 140 pitches in a game 61 times - and in one game threw 198 - the possibility of an early burnout now is a forgotten topic.

In a season when fans have rationed their appearances as payback for last year's strike, Nomo is suddenly boffo at the box office, the best souvenir salesman in the country who doesn't speak English, and a prime candidate for Rookie of the Year. Nomo is also part of the Dodgers' United Nations trio of starting pitchers that includes Ramon Martinez of the Dominican Republic and Ismael Valdez of Mexico.

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