Dodgers snapshot: Nomomania grips L.A. and Japan when Hideo Nomo dominates in 1995

Hideo Nomo first entered the Dodgers spring training complex in Vero Beach, Florida in March 1995 and hopped out of a minivan just long enough to get the keys from his team room to the dorm and drive away.

About 50 Japanese writers, photographers and cameramen who had used Nomo for hours chased it from behind.

Nomo and his interpreter slowly drove around a small loop in front of the team headquarters with the media group in tow, creating a scene straight from a Keystone Kops movie.

“They drove around in circles and the media was chasing them until they finally broke up,” said Derrick Hall, president of the Arizona Diamondbacks team, an assistant media relations director for Dodgers in 1995. “We watched this roughly Lasted 30 minutes and thought, “Oh my god, this man has the following.” ‘

This was just a small taste of the 1995 “Nomomania” madness, when a rookie pitcher from Japan with a quirky delivery and annoying fast-fingered fastball helped revive a sport through the cancellation of the World Series 1994.

“It was just a perfect storm when you look back,” said Nomo agent Don Nomura 25 years later. “That was never the intention. We weren’t timing everything, but it just happened. He was riding the wave. MLB took advantage of this and I think he took advantage of it. So it was a win-win for everyone. ‘

With baseball paused because of the coronavirus outbreak, The Times will look back at memorable moments in Dodgers history. Nomomania is lively.

Nomo’s paparazzi-producing potential was evident in February when 15 camera crews, two dozen photographers, and several dozen writers packed a Los Angeles hotel room for a news conference to formally introduce the pitcher, who had signed a minor league contract with a $ 2 bonus million.

The 26-year-old right-handed man was in his prime, a star for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes when he left the Japanese Pacific League. He would be the second Japanese player to appear in the major leagues, after pitcher Masanori Murakami briefly with the San Francisco Giants from 1964 to 1965. But Nomo would pave the way for a generation of Asian players to take him to the United States to follow. .

Nomo’s presence alone generated a huge following from Japanese media, and a curiosity factor sparked interest in the United States.

“We believe MLB is the highest baseball level in the world,” Eric Karros, a Dodgers first baseman from 1992 to 2002, said in a telephone interview. “And here’s someone who, yes, he was successful in Japan, but will he be successful here? Is that going to translate windup? Will it be more effective? Maybe less effective?”

There would be no mediocrity. Nomo became a world-famous celebrity and media icon for being nearly unreachable for a strike-delayed 1995 season in which he went 13-6 with a 2.54-run average in 28 starts, striking out a National League high managed to reach 236 in 191 1/3 innings.

Dodgers-pitcher Hideo Nomo went 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA in 28 starts and reached a National League-high 236 in the strike-delayed 1995 season.

(Vince Bucci / AFP via Getty Images)

Nomo started the All-Star game that summer in Texas and became the first rookie pitcher to do so since 1981, when Fernando Valenzuela, a 20-year-old Dodgers phenomenon, fueled “Fernandomania” madness. Nomo won NL rookie of the year and finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting.

And he did it under suffocating spotlight, with a constant jerk of marketing and community relationship demands and a slew of other distractions.

“The man had nowhere to go, he had nowhere to run without a huge number of reporters following him,” said Karros. “It was basically 24/7. The pressure to play in the big leagues, if you are already there, is enormous.

“But to weave that together, ‘I’m going abroad, and oh, by the way, I have the weight of the country of Japan, as far as I can manage,’ to have it all on my shoulders? I mean, I know not sure if there are many athletes who have had to deal with that. “

The 6-foot-2,210-pound Nomo was not overpowering. His fastball reached a top speed of 90 mph. But he had a deceptive delivery and a 78-mph fork ball that former Times columnist Jim Murray described as “a slit-fingered thing or something that tends to disappear on the way to the record.”

Known in Japan as “The Tornado”, Nomo started his wind up by slowly raising his arms high above his head before lifting his left leg and twisting his upper body until his back looked at home plate. Then he stormed to the plate with an explosive delivery that had the same arm speed for all his throws.

Hideo Nomo, dressed in a Dodgers jacket, walks into the dugout during a 1995 game.

The Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo had a fork ball that former Times columnist Jim Murray described as’ a slit finger or something that tends to disappear on the way to the record. ‘

(Vince Bucci / AFP via Getty Images)

“I don’t want to see that man in my life again,” Luis Polonia, an outfielder for the New York Yankees, told The Times after meeting Nomo in an exhibition in 1995. “He completely confused me.”

Nomo had an uneven first month in 1995. He was sharp in his debut on May 2, scoring one hit and striking out seven in five scoreless innings in San Francisco, but gave up seven runs in 4 2/3 innings of his next start on Colorado.

He threw seven scoreless innings, striking out two hits and 14 against Pittsburgh on May 17. Two starts later, he walked seven in a loss to Montreal.

But Nomo made his pass in June, going 6-0 with an 0.94 ERA in seven starts, striking out 70 in 57 1/3 innings and delivering a .134 average to earn the All-Star starts.

“I’ve watched a lot of videotapes of this man from many different angles, and that split-fingered pitch is incredible,” former San Diego Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn told The Times in late June 1995. “It’s impossible to tell if it’s a fork ball or a heater until that suction cup drops a foot at the end.”

Hall said the Dodgers released 200 additional media credentials on the evenings Nomo posted, with reporters in an extra press box usually reserved for playoffs and World Series games.

The team held two press conferences after each Nomo launch – for English-speaking reporters and Japanese-speaking reporters. On the first day of each road series, Nomo held a press conference with local Japanese reporters.

Fans were screaming for Nomo’s signature. Wherever the Dodgers went, local city officials, Japanese business leaders, and dignitaries wanted to meet him.

“He clearly became a rock star,” said Hall. “I had heard the stories about Fernandomania, but this was a level of international stardom that I had never seen before.”

Nomo was even bigger in Japan. Cities and towns across the country broadcast Nomo games on large screens in public places. Working days stopped so fans could watch him pitch. Nomo’s wife, Kikuko, couldn’t leave her home in Japan without being chased by photographers.

Telephone lines and fax machines in the Nomura offices in Tokyo and Los Angeles continued to respond to requests for television appearances, notes, and interviews with magazines and newspapers.

“He was the Michael Jordan of Japan,” said Nomura. “It was chaos. That’s probably the right word for it. It came suddenly and unexpectedly and it was just incredible. Everyone wanted a piece of him.

“There was a company that wanted to have its DNA and put it in a wristwatch. I don’t even know if the company existed – it was probably a lot of baloney – but we thought it was crazy. “

Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda said Nomomania overshadowed Fernandomania.

Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo reads a book while manager Tom Lasorda watches a 1995 game in Montreal.

Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo reads a book while manager Tom Lasorda watches the game against the Expos on August 23, 1995 in Montreal.

(Andre Pichette / AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s worse, trust me,” said Lasorda before a night game in mid-May. “I came to the ballpark at half past one today and fifteen men with cameras were waiting for him there. They want to know everything he eats. They follow every move he makes. They want to know everything I tell him. ‘

An Elvis-esque look surrounded Nomo as he entered the stadium in Texas for Monday’s training for the All-Star game, with dozens of writers, camera crews, and photographers tracking every move.

“It got to the point where he couldn’t even go to the bathroom without people following him,” said Gwynn, who retired in 2001 and died in 2014 at the time. “I mean, there was a camera crew who literally followed him through the bathroom door. Then they realized it was a bathroom and turned around. You should have seen their faces. I’ve been telling that story for years. “

Nomo continued to dominate after the All-Star break, going 4-2 to a 1.76 ERA in six starts, including a near-hitter in San Francisco in early August.

“Many guys, especially left-handed hitters, had a hard time against him,” said Karros. Switch hitters sometimes beat him right-handed. Left-handers had a hard time [forkball]. I don’t know if it was the pitch or the excitement – it was probably a combination of the two. “

A difficult period in which he allowed 15 earned points in 16 2/3 innings from three starts fueled speculation Nomo was overwhelmed by distraction.

Hideo Nomo has poured champagne over his head after a victory that yielded at least a NL West title draw.

Hideo Nomo has poured champagne over his head as he celebrated a late season win in 1995 that achieved at least a NL West tie for the Dodgers.

(Marilynn Young / AFP via Getty Images)

But he bounced back to 3-1 with an ERA of 2.35 in his last six starts to help the Dodgers win the NL West before being swept by Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs.

Nomo, now 51 and in his fifth year as a baseball activities advisor to the San Diego Padres, continued the success in 1996, with 17 strikeouts against the Marlins and pitch a no-hitter against the Rockies at Coors Field. He threw 12 years in the major leagues and went 123-109 with an ERA of 4.24 for seven teams.

But he was never as good as 1995, a season that preceded the arrival of Japanese players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani to the US

“Frankly, his success opened the door to everyone,” Karros said of Nomo. “If he’s not successful, I really believe – although I’m not saying it wouldn’t have happened to more Japanese players – but it doesn’t happen at the rate at which it happened.”

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