Hideo Nomo changed Japanese baseball more than any player of his generation. Since he announced his retirement a week ago today, he has been remembered as a pioneer, a man who created a road where none existed.
Nomo won 123 major league games, threw two no-hitters and pitched in the majors until he was 39. Because of his success, others followed in his footsteps and baseball changed forever, both here and in the majors.
This is the Nomo legacy everyone has been talking about: his courage, his tenacity and a road paved across the Pacific. But Nomo's lasting success was in breaking through an enormous barrier of small thinking and ignorance.
Those who honored Nomo this past week never mentioned that in 1995 he was reviled by Japanese teams as a traitor. And because the media here survives on information passed out by the teams, Nomo was vilified in the press.
After four straight 200-plus inning seasons with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Nomo broke down in 1994. That season, first-year manager Keishi Suzuki was in charge and the two did not see eye to eye. When Nomo's arm began to break down, Suzuki--a workhorse pitcher from an era with less hitting depth when 300-inning seasons were commonplace--was the wrong manager for a starter with a tired arm.
In "The Meaning of Ichiro," author Robert Whiting describes how manager Suzuki taught the Tornado a lesson.
On July 1, 1994, at Seibu Stadium, the fifth-place Buffaloes were playing the first-place Lions in the first of three games. Although Suzuki's relievers had pitched a lot over the previous week, the Buffaloes had been off the day before, a Thursday, and would be off again on Monday. With Nomo leading the Lions 5-2 after 6-1/2 innings, Suzuki kept Nomo in the game. When the Buffaloes led 8-2 after 8-1/2, Suzuki sent Nomo back for the ninth.
Nomo walked 16 batters in all and threw 191 pitches--Japan's second-highest total that season, exceeded only by the 200 thrown by Hideki Irabu the next day.
"It was clear what Suzuki was trying to do. But Hideo kept his cool. Nomo wasn't about to give the manager the satisfaction of showing that it bothered him," said Nomo's teammate Lee Stevens, according to Whiting.
Nomo had three more games left in Japan. In the offseason, he bamboozled the Buffaloes and Nippon Professional Baseball by retiring.
Retired players at the time were eligible to play in other leagues because the thinking in Japan was that Japanese players were not good enough to play in the majors at all.
Until Nomo, many believed that because some of the best hitters in Japan were Triple-A batting stars such as Randy Bass and Boomer Wells, the best talent in Japan was Triple-A level.
Bass and Wells, however, were major hitters who hadn't been given major opportunities. They were dominant here because Japan's pro talent pool is shallower, giving hitters many more at-bats against pitchers who could not cut Double-A ball in the States.
Baseball people here said the Japanese game was world class but their actions did not reflect that belief. It is unlikely the Yomiuri Giants would have pressed for free agency--introduced after the 1993 season--if they really thought Japanese stars were good enough for the majors. Nomo's successful major league quest changed that.
Japanese free agency, intended as a route for big-name players to join the Giants, soon became the principle route for Japanese players to flee to the majors. The posting system, reviled by Yomiuri, was a natural outcome of two things: free agency and the knowledge that Japanese stars were major-league caliber.
Japan is full of major stars playing in leagues that have been dominated by minor thinking. If this is to change, Japan will have to follow Nomo.
Nomo had to go to the majors because Japanese ball did not aspire to reach the same heights he did.
The lesson to be learned is that if one is to succeed, one must be willing to think big and test the limits of what is possible, instead of happily getting by with the way things are.