The Book of Nomo - Chapter 4 - No-Hitter
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TOKYO — It is said that hitting a pitched baseball is the hardest thing to do in all of sports. The batter is expected to hit a ball coming in at 90 or so miles an hour which might suddenly break to the left or to the right, or rise up or drop down. The batter must be able to recognize this movement in a split second and then swing and make contact using a slippery, tubular piece of wood, hopefully directing it to a place where there are no fielders.
However, by the same token, throwing a baseball is also one of the hardest things to do. The pitcher has to throw a small sphere about the size of a mikan and hit a specific spot in a small box 60 feet 6 inches away — be it an inside high corner or a low and away corner. At the same time, he also has to do it while throwing the ball faster than the batter can swing or making the ball suddenly move or break in on one direction or another, so that the batter can’t make solid contact. Even the best of the MLB pitchers have a hard time doing this on a consistent basis.
What was amazing about Hideo Nomo was that he added an extra level of difficulty to the mechanics of pitching a baseball. With his unique throwing motion he literally had to deliver fast-moving, fast-breaking pitches into a certain spot in the strike zone, thereby rendering the batter incapable of making contact, all while twisting around on one leg and turning his back on the batter in what was almost a complete circle in the process.
Nomo was literally one a million, or more accurately, one in over half a billion, for if you counted the populations of all the countries that were playing baseball during Nomo’s era — Japan, U.S., Canada, the Latin American countries — there was no one else in the game who could do what Nomo did.
Now, in his second season in MLB he continued to do what he did remarkably well.
In fact, one could argue that 1996 Nomo’s was greatest season in his MLB career.
He had just signed a three-year contract worth $4.3 million — paying him $600,00 in 1996, $600,000 in 1997 and $2.8 million in 1998 — and he would celebrate it by winning 16 games, logging an ERA of 3.19, striking out 234 in 228 innings pitched. He would also pitch one of the greatest games ever pitched, a no-hitter in September of that year in Denver, Colorado.
Nomomania remained alive and well throughout that second year. And the press hordes from Japan continued to converge on Los Angeles. Some 109 Japanese media credentials were issued for Nomo’s first start of ’96 at Dodger Stadium. This comprised more than two-thirds of the entire Dodgers press corps, prompting a stadium security guard at the press gate entrance to quip, “Sooner or later we will all be speaking Japanese.” Those sentiments were shared by the staff manning the new Japanese food concessions opening up at Dodger Stadium, designed to serve the Japanese businessmen and other fans who were still flying in from Tokyo and Osaka to see Nomo pitch, along with, of course, the Japanese-American residents in L.A. who still turned out in large numbers for the Nomo games. Nomo delighted them all when he pitched the first shutout of the MLB season, throwing a three-hitter against the Atlanta Braves and their future Hall of Fame pitcher, lefthander Tom Glavine —rebounding nicely from his initial start of the 1996 campaign in Houston days earlier, when he lost to the Astros 5-2.
Nomo pitched consistently well throughout the season, but he found his star occasionally eclipsed by a Korean addition to the team, 22-year Chan Ho Park, who was brought up to the Dodgers full time from the minors as a reliever — pitching in 48 games and warming up for a starting role the next year where he would win 14 games. Park, at 6’2” 200 pounds, about the same size as Nomo, was a natural rival to the Japanese star. He had his own 97-mile-per-hour fastball and his own set of screaming fans, Korean-Americans, living in the L.A. area, not to mention Koreans who would start flying in from the ROK, where Park had been recruited as a college player.
Like Nomo, Chan Ho Park was a symbol of his countrymen’s success in American sports and society. Korean newspapers back home filled their pages with everything from his pitching repertoire to his morning breakfast menu of kimchi and soup. Some 1,500 fans crowded to see him when he visited Koreatown shopping center for an autograph session. Many Koreans who were not particularly interested in baseball came to the park just to see him.
Park gave Korean-Americans, one of the most insular of Southern California’s many ethnic groups, social visibility and respectability. Both Nomo and Park helped soften a certain stereotype victimizing Asian Americans in the U.S. That stereotype was, in both Korean and Japanese cases, one in which they were depicted as uniformly smart, motivated, industrious and law-abiding, but one in which athleticism was not a part. There was a great hunger in those Asian communities for heroes and role models in all forms and that hunger was not addressed until Nomo and Park came along.
The natural rivalry (if that is the appropriate term), that exists between Japan and Korea — was developed through the centuries of hate, mistrust, warfare and occupation. Japan had ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. This rivalry not surprisingly found its expression in the city of Los Angeles where there were several hundred thousand Korean-Americans and Japanese-Americans living in the greater Los Angeles area, many of them fans of the Dodgers.
The Los Angeles Times addressed this in a feature article on the subject by reporter Teresa Watanabe. she revealed that Japanese complaints about Koreans included comments like, “They smell of garlic,” “They don't follow the rules,” and “They're going to take over.” From the Koreans, said the paper, one would hear the following about the Japanese: “The Japanese are snooty.” “They don't greet you in the elevator.” “They disdain Korean culture.” “They will never accept you as social or business equals.”
One Korean-American resident of the L.A. area, Sunny Koo, 28, spoke for everyone when she said of Park and Nomo, “I want Park to do better than other persons. If that other person is Japanese, I really want him to do better.”
Nomo had admitted to feeling pressure to succeed from Japan when he first joined the Dodgers. “As a Japanese,” he said, “I knew everyone was watching me back home, as well as Japanese in L.A. So I felt pressure to do well.” Now Park, for his part, said the same thing, but admitted he felt even more pressure because Nomo, a Japanese, had succeeded before him. He was not only expected to do well, he also had to do better than Hideo Nomo, the Japanese, which made the pressure twice as intense.
“It is very difficult,” Park said, “The Korean people have big hopes for me. They look at Nomo and say, ‘look how good he is doing.’ Everything is Japan, Japan, Japan. Look Nomo is Japanese, right? I’m Korean. I’ve got to be like Nomo — or rather do even more than Nomo. I just have to.”
As personality types, Nomo and Park could not have been more opposite. Park was effusive and bubbly while Nomo was taciturn. But still, somehow, they managed to develop their own cordial relationship and do their part to help set the tone for better improved, Korean-Japan relations in general. When Nomo won his first game in 1995, for example, Park, who was then playing for the Dodgers’ minor league club in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sent Nomo a letter of congratulations. In the spring of 1998, he even bought a Japanese car.
Moreover, the two had their lockers in the L.A. clubhouse next to one another. Nomo wore uniform No. 16. Park wore 61, the exact reverse of Nomo’s number. But while Park learned some Japanese to go with his English, Nomo did not take up the study of Korean — limiting his forays into the world of foreign linguistics to a few phrases of English.
However, the night before Park’s first start (against the Florida Marlins) Nomo took the rare step of taking his Korean teammate aside and reviewed the opposing starting lineup for him, giving him advice on how to handle the Marlins batting order. “His advice helped me,” said Park. It was a nice gesture, a veteran to a rookie, a Japanese to a Korean.
Nomo did later admit that he appreciated Park’s presence on the team in that he deflected, at least some of the time, a blinding media spotlight that was on him.
Nomo was not the easiest interview in the history of MLB. He was notoriously close-mouthed, reluctant to talk to anyone, American or Japanese, and that included his teammates. Dodgers veteran first baseman Eric Karros would later say that after three years with Nomo “I heard him speak maybe 20 words in that time. if that.” But Nomo was especially loathe to talk to certain Japanese reporters, who were constantly hounding him. Those familiar with the way the Japanese media operated could sympathize in part with their plight. Reporters had been dispatched by Japan’s newspaper, magazines and TV stations to cover Nomo and they were expected to file a report every day on Nomo, whether he had pitched or not and whether Nomo had talked to them or not. It got so bad they had to resort to interviewing their media counterparts. Some Japanese photographers had hidden in the bushes outside his house trying to take photos and Nomo was not the type to easily forgive such transgressions.
Nomo was not anti-social. Over a beer or a cup of coffee in a private one on one session, he could be quite pleasant, if not exactly the most talkative person in the world, and he would freely give his time to charities and children’s hospitals. But baseball reporters, were another matter. He grew weary of being asked the same, often inane, meaningless questions (“How do you feel?” “How is your condition?” “How was your pitching today?” ) day after day after day. Unlike, say, a Hideki Matsui, who never met a reporter that he did not like or would not cooperate with, Nomo would simply grow exasperated and shut down.
Among the Japanese press corps, who were given the Nomo cold shoulder on a daily basis, he was nicknamed “gaijin,” a reference to certain stuck-up foreign players in the NPB who were notoriously uncooperative. It was by no means a compliment.
Nomo also had a memory for slights. He and Nomura remembered which publications had written negative and unflattering stories about them and which shut them out of press conferences and other interview opportunities. For example in early 1995, Masanori Murakami had made the mistake of seeming to scold Nomo in a Japanese newspaper article for not learning English. Later that season when Nomo was scheduled to start a game in San Francisco on “Murakami Night,” Nomo remembered that slight and refused to pose with him for photographers. To top it off, he threw a one-hitter against Murakami’s Giants that day, adding insult to injury.
Of course, any feelings the press had about Nomo and vice versa, were temporarily eliminated on the night of Sept. 17, 1996, when Nomo took the mound against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver. What he did that night overshadowed anything he had done before.
Coors Field, which had been completed in 1995, was one of the nicest places to watch a baseball game in the world. The air was cool in the summer and the upper stands offered an incomparable view of the Rocky Mountains off in the distant. At sunset on a clear day, the scene was heart-stoppingly beautiful.
As Chris Wooten, a longtime Denver resident put it, “You could charge admission to this park even on days when there was no baseball game or other event and I think people would still pay to come in, just to see the view.”
However, Coors Field was also a terrible pitcher’s park. For one thing, there was very little foul territory between the playing field and the stands. For another, with Denver situated a mile above sea level (hence the city’s nickname, “The Mile High City”), the air was thin — so thin it was considered a decided advantage to hitters and an impediment to pitchers.
Stadium designers had realized that because of lower air density at its high elevation, batted balls would travel farther at Coors Field. With this in mind, they had placed the outfield fences at an unusually far distance from home plate; thus creating one of the largest outfields in baseball today. Nonetheless, home runs still flew out of Coors Field at an alarming rate, and, because of the large outfield, there was also a record number of doubles and triples. So much for planning.
In its first decade, the above-average number of home runs hit there earned Coors Field a reputation as the most hitter-friendly park in MLB. It earned the nickname "Coors Canaveral" among critics, which was a reference to Cape Canaveral from where NASA launched spacecraft. Studies later determined that it was more the dry air rather than thin air which contributed to the more frequent home runs. It was found that baseballs stored in drier air are harder and therefore more elastic to the impact of the bat. Thus prior to the 2002 season, a room-sized humidor was installed at the stadium in which to store the baseballs, and since that time, the number of home runs at Coors Field decreased and is now nearly the same as other parks.
However, such was not the case in 1996.
Moreover, regardless of ball humidity, elevation was still a factor to the game. The ball does slip easier through the thin air of Denver, allowing for longer hits. In addition, the curveball tends to curve less in that thin air and the forkball or sinker, which of course was Nomo’s specialty, tends to drop less in the thin air than at sea level, thereby leading to fewer strikeouts and fewer effective pitches for pitchers to work with.
Coors Field twice broke the MLB record for home runs hit in a ballpark in one season. The earlier record, 248, had been set at the Los Angeles version of Wrigley Field, a one-time minor league park that the Angels had temporarily used for one year in 1961. It was the only year the L.A. Wrigley Field played host to major league ball.
In Coors Field's first year, the home run total fell just seven short of that mark at that time, this despite losing nine games from the home schedule (or one-ninth of the normal 81) due to the player strike/owner lockout that had continued from 1994 into that 1995 season. Over the next season, 1996, when a full schedule was played, a record 271 home runs were hit at Coors Field. (The current record of 303 was set there in 1999).
It was thus commonly agreed, because of all this, by just about everyone in MLB at that time, that it was impossible to pitch a no-hitter at Coors Field. There were just too many drawbacks to achieving the feat.
Baseball author Rich Westcott summed it up as well as anyone in his book “No-Hitters: The 225 Games, 1893-1999” when he wrote, “a pitcher has about as much of a chance of firing a no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver as someone would have sliding down Pike’s Peak in a canoe.” Pike’s Peak is 4,320 meters high.
When Nomo took the mound that evening, he faced other obstacles as well. It was a rainy, chilly night and the game was delayed for almost two hours at the start because of the wet weather. Moreover, as the temperature steadily dropped as the evening wore on,
Burks, Galarraga and Castilla would all hit 40 or more home runs that year, while Bichette would hit 31 homers and drive in a remarkable total of 141 runs. The Rockies lineup averaged over six runs a game and was especially brutal on its home turf. In Nomo’s eight previous starts at Coors, he had given up 63 hits in 43 1/3 innings and had an ERA of 8.72. Indeed, in the Dodgers most recent visit to Coors Field, the Rockies pounded them for 69 hits and 52 runs in just three games.
The game did not start until 8:45 p.m. A light, steady rain, blown across the field by the wind, continued for much of the early innings and increased as the evening wore on. The field was so muddy that heavy doses of sand were applied around home plate and the pitcher’s mound. In fact, the conditions around the pitching rubber were so bad that Nomo was forced to abandon his famous “Tornado windup,” which many people believed was the key to his success, and pitch from a reduced motion in the stretch. Moreover, it was so cold — and would grow colder as the game progressed —that the umpires wore gloves to keep their hands warm, while players blew on their hands and scrunched together for warmth. It was football weather, not an evening for baseball at all.
Nomo, who had spent the pre-game wait in the clubhouse, playing solitaire with headphones on, struggled early on in the miserable conditions, walking men in the 1st, 2nd, and 4th innings. He was constantly scraping mud off his spikes. But his walks turned out to be a blessing. For example, with Burks on at first base in the first inning, Galarraga hit a grounder to the right of the shortstop, Greg Gagne, who threw Burks out at second for the force. It was a good twist of fortune for Nomo because Gagne never could have gotten Galarraga at first.
Then, some how, as the innings piled up, Nomo seemed to get stronger. He allowed just one runner after the 4th inning, a lead-off walk to Eric Young in the 6th.
Said Bichette, whose shoulder-length tresses were rain-soaked by mid-game, “The first couple of times I was seeing the ball and I felt I was close to getting him. But after the 4th inning, he stepped his game up to another level and I said to myself, ‘We’re not going to get a hit off this guy tonight.’ ”
Rockies pitcher Jamey Wright, who witnessed the game, couldn’t believe how much Nomo’s forkball was breaking. “There were so many swings and misses,” he said, “Nomo’s forkball was breaking so much it frequently landed in the dirt. I couldn’t believe he was doing that.”
Only right-handed slugging third baseman Vinny Castilla came closest to a hit, when, on a 3-0 count, he drove a ball the opposite way into right center field on to the warning track. Castilla thought it was a home run, but the ball died at the fence, dropping into Raul Mondesi’s glove, two feet from the wall.
The Dodgers offered more than enough run support, scoring nine runs over the course of the game. in the 8th inning the Dodgers sent eight batters to the plate and scored two runs. Nomo sat with his hands wrapped in towels to keep warm. That inning, he went 26 minutes between pitches. But in keeping with American baseball tradition, no one spoke to Nomo. No one wanted to bring him bad luck or jinx the no-hitter by mentioning, or even alluding to it.
Nomo finished the job in style in the 9th inning. He shook off Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza’s signal on the final pitch to get Burks with his trademark forkball to end the game. Piazza leaped in the air. Nomo, for his part, managed a smile and a small jab with his fist. Soon he was surrounded by his teammates. Piazza grabbed him and lifted him in the air and Nomo briefly waved to the crowd.
Nomo’s final line was 9 IP, 4 BB, and 8 K.
It was hard to overstate how impressive an achievement this was. The early days at Coors Field had featured so many blowouts and high scoring games that no one ever dreamed they would see a game like the one Nomo had just pitched. Indeed, Colorado fans had been so overwhelmed by Nomo’s performance that they gave the pitcher from Japan a standing ovation when he stayed in the game to hit for himself in the top of the 9th.
“A no-hitter is something anywhere, but at Coors Field,” said Wright, “Well, you can’t get much more impressive than that.”
Clint Hurdle, who was a hitting instructor at the time with the Rockies, before going on to manage the club, said, “It absolutely amazed me. It is up there with Halley’s comet and other wonders of the universe. You wonder if you will ever see it again.”
Nomo, as usual, was nonchalant about his achievement. In fact, Piazza even thought he looked embarrassed. In the clubhouse after the game, surrounded by well-wishers, he shrugged and seemed at a loss for words — which when one stopped to think about it, was really no different than he was at any other time.
“I was able to pitch at my best,” he finally said, with some understatement. “But I will always remember my teammates congratulating me. It was like we had won a championship. This was a big accomplishment for the team, and not just for me.”
His teammates, who were fighting to stay in contention in the pennant race, were somewhat more effusive. Said Dodgers closer Todd Worrell, “It is the greatest pitching performance I have ever seen in the middle of a pennant race, especially in these conditions and in this ballpark. To be able to do what it did is incredible.”
Said Dodgers manager Bill Russell, “I’d put that game among the greatest pitching performances in history. There have been other no-hitters, but this one is special. I couldn’t believe he was doing that. A no-hitter is simply unbelievable.”
Said Nomo’s catcher Piazza, “Nomo should be canonized on the spot.”
It took Nomo an hour to get to the postgame news conference, because of all the congratulations his jubilant teammates showered upon him. It took another hour for reporters to finish questioning him. By the time he was finished, the post-game meal in the clubhouse had been finished and cleared away.
In the cab back to the hotel, the Dodgers’ publicity director asked Nomo why he had shaken off Piazza on the final pitch of the game.
“Fake,” said Nomo, with the small traces of a grin. a rare attempt at levity. Then he got out and walked off to his room.
By the end of Nomo’s second season, it was clear that Nomo was no fluke. The ramifications of his success in MLB were only beginning to be felt.
Until Nomo's arrival, the general thinking on both sides of the Pacific was that because good Triple-A hitters could have big careers in Japan, the best players had to be Triple-A level. Reggie Jackson, the former Yankee slugging star, scoffed because the league Nomo came from didn't have any Albert Belles or Barry Bonds. But the flood of players that would follow would prove him mistaken. Yes it might be true that the worst players in the CL and PL might be worse than the worst players in the NL and AL. But in a few short years, one would be able to counter Reggie Jackson’s contempt by saying, “the MLB didn’t have anybody like Ichiro Suzuki … or Shohei Ohtani.”
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