Two decades after Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan out of isolation in 1854, the Japanese started playing baseball. This year Hideo Nomo, the 26-year-old imported pitching star of the Los Angeles Dodgers, has emerged to remind Americans that Japan's longstanding baseball pretensions must be taken seriously. By instantly becoming one of the best pitchers in the National League, Nomo has enlivened and internationalized the game in a sullen year. The secret of his success may be instructive.
When he was pitching for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, a team based in Osaka and owned by a railroad company, Nomo led his league in strikeouts and victories. But his team was rarely on television and he played in relative obscurity. The only real fame he gained stemmed from his decision to quit and join the Dodgers. Denounced then as an ingrate and a traitor, Nomo is today a bigger hero in Japan than he would have been had he remained. Some are claiming that his performance shows the superiority of Japanese baseball techniques.
With his corkscrew windup and laconic style, Nomo comes across as an exotic messenger from the Far East. But at the risk of sounding chauvinistic, his achievement in the United States may be testimony to American ways no less than Japanese.
Nomo left the Kintetsu Buffaloes after fighting openly with the team manager over demands that he pitch and practice more. He thus defied the hallowed tradition that Japanese baseball players must serve as uncomplaining samurais. That assumption dates from the early days, when the training regimen of the best team in the country was nicknamed "bloody urine," because the players practiced so hard they urinated blood.
In Japan, Nomo came to believe instead in the weight-training methods of Nolan Ryan and the advice of other Americans who argued that Japanese players exhaust themselves into early retirement by constant practice, even on the day before pitching in a game. In the last year, Nomo began complaining of shoulder pain. But his request to ease up was rejected gruffly by his manager, a onetime pitching star out of the warrior tradition whose philosophy has been described by Robert Whiting, the pre-eminent American expert on Japanese baseball, as "Throw until you die."
Analysts who have seen Nomo play in both the United States and Japan say that he is an even better player here because he is finally pacing himself. The Dodgers have also apparently worked on his control and gotten him to stop unintentionally signaling that he is about to pitch one of his devastating forkballs. So his success may be testimony to the best of both worlds.
Bobby Valentine, the former Texas Ranger manager who now manages the Chiba Lotte Marines outside Tokyo, said recently that the top 20 pitchers in Japan were all major-league quality "or above." There is talk in Japan of tightening up the rules to prevent more players from defecting overseas. It may be the only instance in modern history of Japan acting to crack down on exports to the United States. But opening up American baseball to more players from Japan, Cuba or elsewhere would be only proper for a game that claims to culminate each year in a World Series.