SAN FRANCISCO — For most American baseball fans, the Japanese pitching sensation Hideo Nomo, who stunned the baseball world last week with his no-hitter in Colorado's hitters' haven, is an oddity. He first appeared last year, seemingly out of nowhere from the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
But as major-league scouts are discovering, there's the equivalent of a whole major-league team of Nomos, and then some, playing over there. From Little League to a sophisticated, 12-team professional circuit, baseball is by far the most popular team sport in Japan.
It is a quirk of history that the Japanese have been playing "America's pastime" almost as long as Americans have. Not long after the opening of Japan's closed society to the West in the mid-19th century, American schoolteachers brought the game to Japan's shores. The Japanese took to it from the start, although they've added their own cultural twists.
For some Japanese, there is the appeal of a game that places the needs of the team over the individual in a society that does the same. For others, it is the drama of that moment of combat between pitcher and hitter, where spirit can sometimes triumph over physical skill.
For this die-hard baseball fan, the devotion to baseball la Japonais began in the late 1980s, during a stint as a correspondent in Tokyo. I was disconcerted by the oddities the Japanese had brought to the game, from tie games to fans who politely returned foul balls. But I also discovered its joys: disciplined play and players who truly put team loyalty first.
At first, my attentions focused on the two Americans who were allowed on each of Japan's 12 professional teams. Most were ex-major leaguers looking to pick up a last big payoff before retirement - hired guns with little appreciation for the strange, parallel baseball universe in which they had landed. But there were others like Leron Lee, who barely scratched at the door of the majors but made an 11-year career in Japan, married a Japanese woman, brought over his brother Leon, and became a part of the Japanese game.
Players like the Lee brothers helped me gain an appreciation for their Japanese teammates. There were men like slugger Hiromitsu Ochiai, a three-time Triple Crown winner who openly disdained the ideology of self-sacrifice that was enshrined in Japanese baseball. Or Masumi Kuwata, who vaulted straight from high-school hero to pitcher for the fabled Yomiuri Giants, the country's first and most beloved professional team.
All the talk in sushi bars
Debates raged in sushi bars over how these players would fare if they played in America. The subject even tantalized the Americans playing in Japan, who would tick off the names of those they thought could make it in the "bigs." But even the occasional Japanese victories against an American all-star team (which toured every two years) could not settle the issue.
For Japanese, it is a question that strikes at the heart of their complex feelings about Americans. For some, the game of baseball as it is played in the US represents all the things they disdain about America - its swaggering bravado, its preeminence in the world, its dedication to "rugged individualism." And so this nation, whose collective self-esteem was shaken by defeat and occupation after World War II, would like nothing more than to beat its former conquerors at their own game.
But with barely an exception, no Japanese ballplayer was willing to step out of a world that assured his stardom and into one where he might fail, and so publicly. The czars of Japan's baseball teams, less than eager to see their best talent fly the coop, have also put every barrier in the way. But, it must also be said, American talent scouts never bothered to look much either.
Enter, Hideo Nomo
It took Hideo Nomo, a young star pitcher for the Kintetsu Lions with a peculiar but effective corkscrew delivery, to break the mold. Angry with his team for insisting that he pitch through pain, Nomo retired, hired an agent, and then signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Japanese press heaped scorn on him for betraying his team, predicting an ignominious fate.
But Nomo has successfully transported across the Pacific the unflappable temperament and the razor-sharp instinct that made him the strikeout king of Japanese baseball.
He combines a 90-mile-per-hour-plus fastball with a deceptive forkball that drops almost vertically in front of the flailing batter. He led the National League in strikeouts last year and is second this year, a season in which he has pushed his winning record to 16 wins and 11 losses.
In Japan, meanwhile, Nomo is the biggest thing since steamed rice, his every game televised, displayed on huge screens in every major city for passing office workers to stop and watch.
Now little boys in Japan dream of being New York Yankees as well as Seibu Lions. And Americans are learning, through the greatest game ever invented, of another world out there.