Nomo pitches in to offer badly needed lift


ARLINGTON, Texas -- It is quite a moment, both in the history of baseball and the history of America.

A half-century after the Japanese surrender in World War II, a Japanese-born ballplayer has emerged to re-ignite the national pastime, in a way that no U.S.-born player could have.

Hideo Nomo is above the strike and the sport's labor problems and its battered public image. He brings back all the old feelings baseball heroes used to inspire. He is new, he is surprising, he is shy, and above all -- well, have you seen him pitch?

Nomo, the Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander, will be the starting pitcher tonight for the National League in the All-Star Game at The Ballpark in Arlington.

Nomo is 6-1 with a 1.99 ERA. He's averaging 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings. If he maintains that pace, he will break the season record of 11.5, set in 1987 by Nolan Ryan.

"Baseball needs Nomo," said Los Angeles reliever Todd Worrell. "He's brought excitement back into the game."

Had Atlanta's Greg Maddux not been injured, National League manager Felipe Alou doesn't know if he would have made Maddux or Nomo the starter. Maddux is the three-time defending Cy Young Award winner, and he's 8-1 with a 1.64 ERA this season.

But even before he suffered a groin injury in his last start, Maddux had said he would step aside and let Nomo start. Nomo had to start.

Nomo packed an interview room for a news conference yesterday. Dozens of reporters from Japan were there, and he gave predictable and self-effacing answers. He has yet to make news with anything he has said.

Nomo answered all the questions in Japanese, and they were translated. But at the end of the news conference, he said in English, "Thank you very much."

No, Hideo. Baseball should be thanking you.

The response has been immediate from peers and fans alike:

* Japanese are in the stands whenever Nomo pitches. And not all of them live here. One Japanese oil company executive flew across the Pacific to see Nomo's most recent start in Los Angeles, then flew back the next day.

At Dodger Stadium, where they've opened a Japanese restaurant in Nomo's honor, the gift shop is stocked with Nomo-bilia.

One night, three Japanese businessmen went into the gift shop and made these purchases: three $150 Nomo Dodgers jackets, three $25 Nomo T-shirts and three $10 Nomo baseballs. They passed on the $15 limited-edition Nomo baseballs. They also passed on the $50 Nomo sweatshirts, the $5 Nomo pennants and the $3 Nomo pins.

Nomo, 26, was a star in Japan, a strikeout ace with the Kintetsu Buffaloes. He wanted to come to the U.S. major leagues for three reasons: 1) Kinetsu was a Japanese equivalent of Pittsburgh or Milwaukee, a non-contending, small-market team; 2) he couldn't be a free agent in Japan for several seasons; 3) he wanted to see if he could make it in the major leagues.

And as for how well's he's doing?

"This is a dream for me," he said, "one I thought was unreachable."

Nomo's games are televised on giant, outdoor screens in several Japanese cities. His first was televised live in Japan at 4:30 a.m. Dozens of Japanese reporters have been here following him. No matter how big Nomo gets here, he can't be as big as he is in Japan.

* When Pittsburgh's Jay Bell was asked if Nomo reminded him of any pitcher, he paused, then said, "Yeah, Cy Young."

Starting tonight against Nomo will be Seattle's Randy Johnson, the strikeout king of the American League. They will put this record in double jeopardy: most consecutive strikeouts in an All-Star Game, five, by the Giants' Carl Hubbell in 1934 and the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela in '86.

Four of the first five hitters in the NL lineup are left-handed, and this year, left-handed batters are 3-for-29 off Johnson. (Recall John Kruk's humorously futile attempt to hit Johnson in the '93 All-Star Game.)

American League batters will be battling Nomo's forkball, one of the best since Bruce Sutter was an ace reliever with the Cubs and Cardinals in the '70s and '80s. Like Sutter, Nomo has a pitch that still looks like a fastball when the hitters have to decide whether to swing, and then it drops sharply.

"You think it's a forkball, and it's a fastball," said Colorado slugger Andres Galarraga. "Then you think it's a fastball, and it's a forkball. You just can't recognize it."

That forkball is why Nomo might keep striking out hitters at close to his current pace, no matter how often they face him.

In the early weeks of this season, a theory floated around that teams would do better the second time they opposed Nomo. Well, the second time he has faced clubs, Nomo is 6-0 in six starts, with an 0.89 ERA.

Much has been made of Nomo's pause in his windup.

"If I were you guys," Bell told reporters, "I'd write about the quality of his pitching and not his delivery. He's a good pitcher because he's got good stuff, not because he has some trick."

* Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, long a proponent of international baseball, has a photo of one player on his office wall: Nomo.

O'Malley attended a black-tie affair in Los Angeles honoring a Japanese executive. When it was time to sit down for dinner, no one budged.

"We were all huddled in small groups listening to transistor radios," O'Malley said. "Everyone wanted to hear how Nomo was doing."

And so might it be tonight.

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