Nomo's magic needs no translation


ARLINGTON, Texas -- They held a news conference for Hideo Nomo before the All-Star Game workout yesterday. It was less than illuminating.

Why did you come to the United States after experiencing such success in Japan?

"I wanted to come," he said, speaking through a translator.

How many strikeouts will you record in the game?

"I haven't thought about it."

Do you feel pressure to help revive interest in American baseball after the strike?


What do you like other than baseball?

"I like other sports, and I like food." ("He left out oxygen," said one cynic in the press.)

Such is life inside the belly of the fledgling baseball beast known as Nomo-mania, where what isn't lost in translation is fiercely shielded from the public.

Nomo, a 26-year-old rookie pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, starting for the National League tonight, is regarded by the Japanese press as their Eddie Murray. He offers nothing other than cliches, leaving us to wonder what makes him tick.

Yet as much as an air of mystery surrounds him, his success itself is no mystery. A forkball that drops like a brick translates clearly in all languages.

"There's no secret to his success," Cincinnati's Ron Gant said yesterday. "Crazy windup, good fastball, great forkball, great control, throws strikes, goodbye, sit down."

Sit down is what most hitters have done after facing Nomo, who came to the Dodgers after winning 78 games in five seasons for the Kintetsu Buffaloes of Japan's Pacific League. He has a 6-1 record, a 1.99 ERA and a league-leading 119 strikeouts. Opponents are batting .158 against him.

As much as the institution of major-league baseball is getting what it deserves at the All-Star Game this year -- fan voting declined by more than 50 percent, from 14 million ballots to 5.8 million -- Nomo is blessing it with one of the most unusual stories in years.

"If we had three or four more Hideo Nomos, no one would be saying anything was wrong with baseball," the New York Yankees' Wade Boggs said.

"I want to watch him pitch; everyone wants to watch him pitch," said AL starter Randy Johnson.

Not watch him talk, no -- "I am enjoying it" is about all he'll say about his success -- but watch him pitch, yes.

It is indeed a sight. He is a solid 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, with thick legs and enormous hands. He hides the ball from batters with a corkscrew, back-to-the-plate delivery that resembles a cross between Luis Tiant and Fernando Valenzuela -- his nickname is "The Tornado" -- then baffles them even though he throws only two pitches, a 92-mph fastball and a devilish forkball.

Frank Thomas answered with one word when asked about getting a chance to bat against him: "Cool."

What makes his success so remarkable is its simplicity. His first pitch to almost every batter is a fastball. After that, he throws forkballs 90 percent of the time. That's it.

But his fastball tails off naturally, making it a monster, and his forkball drops precipitously within 10 feet of the plate ("later than any forkball I've ever seen," Gant said), so batters begin swinging before they realize they've been had.

"It's an awesome pitch," said the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn. "This isn't some fluke deal."

And even though he is a rookie here, he threw a thousand-plus innings in Japan. "He knows how to pitch," said his Dodgers catcher, Mike Piazza. "He uses both sides of the plate. He has presence on the mound. It's obvious he knew what he was doing when he got here."

Nomo was criticized by many in Japan, including his parents, for leaving for the Dodgers, who gave him a $2 million signing bonus. His parents asked him why he wanted to leave when he already had wealth and status at home. Nomo's response: "It's my life."

The story explains a lot about Nomo. He was an iconoclast in the Japanese sporting world, where the team concept is sacred, individualism is abhorred and disagreeing

with the manager is viewed as a disgrace. Nomo quarreled with his manager at Kintetsu and brazenly asked for a multi-year contract, which only go to more experienced players in Japan.

In sum, he was more American in his mind-set than most Japanese players, a perfect candidate to jump to the gimme-mine States. Many Japanese fans said he would fail, but they're all on the bandwagon now. His games are broadcast live in Japan and shown on big-screen televisions set up on city streets. Travel agents offer Nomo packages to Los Angeles.

"I had my doubts [about succeeding] when I came, but I was up to the task," Nomo said yesterday, in what veteran Nomo-watchers proclaimed as the most revealing statement made since he arrived in the States.

A small army of Japanese reporters and camera crews records his every step here, and it is understandable: Nomo is staking the strongest case ever for the quality of Japanese baseball, long regarded as patently inferior to that in the States.

Lingering fan bitterness over the strike has kept the mania from taking off full force here, but it is heating up. Crowds are markedly higher when he pitches, at home and on the road. Tonight's start will only add to his growing legend.

As for Nomo himself, he seems to be getting the hang of this curious institution known as American baseball. He is playing for the $109,000 minimum this year, and already his agent is talking about a big raise.

"We all know what kind of money he is generating for the Dodgers," his agent, Don Nomuro, said.


No translation needed there.

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