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Fans Can't Get Enough of Ace Pitcher Nomo

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

By Phil ElderkinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 1995



LOS ANGELES

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.

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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.

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.