When he left Japan to sign with the Dodgers in 1995, Nomo and his convoluted windup brought a frenzy not seen in Los Angeles since Fernando Valenzuela looked skyward in the ’80s. But with each passing year, hitters seemed to catch up to the human tornado. His loss totals and ERA steadily increased in each of his first three seasons, although his strikeouts remained relatively static. After leaving LA in 1998, Nomo repeatedly shifted organizations, either seeking a better contract or being dropped by clubs that didn’t want to gamble on another year from him. Yet Hideo often had the last laugh, tossing quality games for his new franchises, including his second no-hitter in his first appearance with the Boston Red Sox in 2001.
Nomo was already a star in Japan by the time he came to America. He was selected by the Kintetsu Buffaloes in the first round of the 1989 Japanese free-agent draft a year after pitching on the silver medal Japanese Olympic baseball team. Halfway through his fourth season with the Buffaloes, Nomo reached the 1,000 career strikeout mark faster than any other player in the history of Japanese professional baseball. In those four seasons, in fact, he had led the Pacific League in wins and strikeouts. His fifth season in 1994, however, was cut short due to shoulder problems.
After the season, he got into a salary dispute with Kintetsu, and was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent on February 8, 1995. Becoming the first Japanese-born player to join a major league team after playing professionally in Japan’s Central or Pacific Leagues, Nomo and his signing became a landmark, allowing stars such as Ichiro Suzuki to follow in his footsteps. After spending the first month of the season in the minors, he was promoted to Los Angeles and was an immediate sensation. With the first real professional Eastern star in the bigs, the ballpark bubbled over with Japanese fans and media, many making the trek from the land of the rising sun to watch him.
Coupled with a nasty forkball, Nomo’s awkward delivery completely flummoxed National League hitters. He won nine of his first 12 starts, posted a 1.91 ERA, and led the NL with 168 Ks in 136 innings during the string — he also became the first Japanese player to be selected to the All-Star Game. His ERA was second best in the league, his opposing batting average was tops in the league, and he led the league in strikeouts with 236, establishing a Dodger franchise record for most strikeouts by a rookie. He fanned 50 batters in four consecutive starts in June, a new Dodger record, surpassing Sandy Koufax.
He capped off the remarkable campaign by winning the Rookie of the Year award, sparking some controversy about the selection since technically he was only a rookie in the American pro ranks. While some argued that runner-up Chipper Jones was a truer rookie and more deserving, Nomo quietly accepted the trophy, paving the way for Kazuhiro Sasaki, the reliever who would win the award just five years later under similar circumstances.
Nomo suffered a minor sophomore jinx, perhaps a reaction to an embarrassing mid-season revelation of an extra-marital affair with a Japanese television reporter, but more likely because he’d lost a couple of miles per hour off his fastball. Yet he still ended the 1996 season in style. In his last nine starts, Nomo went 5-2 with a 2.15 ERA, including an unlikely no-hitter against the Rockies in their hitter’s paradise, Coors Field, on September 17, 1996. Nomo finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting, and became the first Dodger pitcher to strike out more than 200 batters in his first two seasons — an even more impressive achievement considering the Dodgers’ rich pitching history.
But as his whirling dervish approach became more familiar to National League batters, Nomo dropped to just a 14-12 record in 1997, with a 4.25 ERA, more than a full run higher than the previous year. Halfway through 1998, the Dodgers organization was going through major changes, having already traded franchise player Mike Piazza. The burly catcher ended up on the New York Mets after a brief stint with the Florida Marlins, and the Dodgers saw to it that Nomo joined his old battery mate, trading him along with pitcher Brad Clontz to the Mets for pitchers Dave Mlicki and Greg McMichael in June 1998.
The change of scenery didn’t help the slumping Nomo, who finished the year in the bullpen with a 6-12 record and 4.92 ERA. Perhaps more importantly, he begged out of starting a clutch Mets’ game at the end of the season, saying that he was not worthy of pitching in such an important match. The Mets ultimately lost the game and didn’t make the playoffs — leaving confusion in the organization of where the Japanese pitcher’s heart was. In March 1999, questions arose again when Nomo opted not to start in the minors, instead asking for his release from the team.
Just a week after he was released by the Mets, the pitching-poor Chicago Cubs beat out three other teams in laying rights to him, but were thoroughly unimpressed with his outings in minor-league ball. After two mediocre outings, the Cubs released him, and the Milwaukee Brewers picked him up to replace injured lefty Bill Pulsipher in the rotation. Nomo fared decently, going 12-8 with 161 strikeouts over 28 starts.
At the end of the year, Milwaukee offered him a two-year contract with over $8 million, but the one-time All-Star turned it down, choosing to test the free agent market instead. Nomo’s allure of past success and sporadic hints of greatness attracted many suitors — just not suitors from playoff-contending clubs.
After attempting negotiations with the Philadelphia Phillies, Nomo ended up signing a one-year deal with the Detroit Tigers for $1.25 million, far less than his asking price of $8-9 million. Nomo finished with an 8-12 record, giving up 31 homers in Comerica Park, one of the least homer-friendly stadiums in the bigs. Detroit declined to pick up his $5.5 million option, and he quickly signed a one-year contract with the Boston Red Sox for $4.5 million.
With two continents’ media in a frenzy over the Seattle Mariners‘ signing of Ichiro Suzuki, the first Japanese position player in Major League Baseball, Nomo somehow fell off the radar screen. Though he had been the original groundbreaker for the mania that followed, he had lost his rookie magic, and was no longer the darling of the sport. But for one moment on April 4, 2001, he was again on the covers of papers across both nations. Hideo no-hit the Baltimore Orioles in his first start of the season, becoming just the fourth player to have no-hitters in both leagues, joining the ranks of Hall-of-Famers Cy Young, Jim Bunning, and Nolan Ryan.