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Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010

Contract loophole opened door for Nomo's jump


Special to The Japan Times

Second in a four-part series

News photo
The Tornado: Hideo Nomo's unique windup originated from playing catch with his father as a youngster in Osaka. AP PHOTO

Hideo Nomo was born to a working-class family in Osaka in 1969 — his father, Shizuo, was a big, broad-shouldered fisherman turned postal worker and his mother, Kayoko, a part-time supermarket employee. He was a naturally shy, taciturn youth who hid his emotions, even from his own parents.

Said his mother, "As a little child, he was passive. He seldom talked."

His one passion was baseball.

To impress his father in games of catch he developed a bizarre twisting style of throwing, so that he could get more speed on the ball. He would raise his arms high over his head, turn his back on the batter, raise his pivot leg and freeze for a second before throwing.

Playing baseball in Little League and in junior high school, his corkscrew form (or tornado delivery, as it was later dubbed) not only enabled him to throw the ball harder, but it also made it more difficult for the hitters to spot the ball when he delivered it.

Nomo spent three years at tiny Seijo Industrial High School, where he grew into a strapping 188-cm, 91-kg athlete, as big, if not bigger, than most pitchers in America, with one of the best fastballs in Japan. Because of chronic wildness, however, he was passed over by professional scouts and in 1988, Nomo joined an Industrial League team, Shin-Nitetsu Sakai. There he improved his control and learned to throw his now-famous forkball.

To develop his grip, he slept each night with a tennis ball wedged in between his first two fingers, stabilized with masking tape. His mastery of the forkball, combined with improved control on his blazing fastball, elevated him to the next level as a pitcher. Now the pro scouts were paying serious attention.

After pitching on the silver medal-winning Japanese baseball team in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he was drafted by the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1989 and was an immediate success, winning 18 games against eight losses, while striking out 287 hitters in just 235 innings, including 17 in one game.

He was voted the 1990 Rookie of the Year, Pacific League MVP and earned the Sawamura Award for best pitcher all in one fell swoop. And he was just getting started.

Over his next three seasons, Nomo was as consistently good as any pitcher in all of Japanese baseball, leading the PL in shutouts, victories and strikeouts. His only weakness was an occasional inability to control his forkball, which resulted in a high number of walks.

When Ken Griffey Jr. saw Nomo pitch on a visit to Japan, he said flatly, "That kid belongs in a major league uniform."

Nomo thrived under the stewardship of Buffaloes manager Akira Ogi, a bon vivant who had elevated bar-hopping to an art and knew as much about night life in Osaka's Minami district as he did about the game of baseball.

Ogi, who sometimes entertained nightclub hostesses in the manager's office at the ballpark, told Nomo, "You can do whatever you want, as long as you win."

However, when a new manager, Keiishi Suzuki, replaced Ogi as manager in 1993, the stage was set for trouble. Suzuki was one of the greatest pitchers in the history of Nippon Professional Baseball, a barrel-chested, left-hander who had his own world-class forkball and fastball, which he had used to win 317 games in a 20-year career ending in 1985, the fourth-highest total on the all-time wins list, while striking out 3,061.

Suzuki's philosophy of baseball was old school and was briefly summed up in the words "Pitch until you die."

Suzuki had frequently pitched on two days of rest throughout his career and would willingly pitch in relief on the day after throwing nine innings. On days he did not start, he went to the bullpen to practice throwing and to hone his razor-sharp control.

Nomo, on the other hand, was a student of the Nolan Ryan school of pitching and conditioning, which held that the proper routine between starts was one of three to four days of rest combined with light throwing and weight training to improve strength and flexibility in the legs and throwing arm.

Ryan, of course, was one of the greatest pitchers ever. He is MLB's all-time strikeout king, with a total of 5,712 strikeouts. He pitched until he was 46 years old, which was seven years longer than Suzuki.

If you were going to copy someone, it might as well be him, Nomo believed.

Suzuki found the Ryan way strange. He thought throwing 100 pitches every day in practice about right and pushed Nomo hard to throw more.

He was particularly disappointed in Nomo's Opening Day performance in 1994, versus the Seibu Lions in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture. Nomo had struck out 11 batters in the first four innings and took a no-hitter into the ninth, leading 4-0.

But then Nomo gave up a leadoff double, a walk and an infield error to load the bases. Suzuki removed Nomo for a reliever, who gave up a game-tying home run, and the Buffaloes went on to lose.

Suzuki said afterward that he thought Nomo could have been mentally and physically tougher in closing it out.

In July of that year, Nomo struggled with his control in another game against the Lions at Seibu Stadium, walking batter after batter in the early going. But Suzuki left Nomo in the game for the full excruciating nine innings. Nomo wound up walking 16 and throwing an arm-aching 191 pitches.

By not putting a relief pitcher in, Suzuki was trying to build what he believed was the mental toughness Nomo lacked. Shortly thereafter, however, Nomo developed a sharp pain in his shoulder.

Rather than let him rest, Suzuki dispatched him to the farm team for more work.

"The best way to cure a sore arm is to throw more," he would say, "to pitch through the pain."

Under Suzuki's regimen, Nomo's shoulder pain only worsened. Indeed, for a time his shoulder hurt so much he had to drive his car with his left hand. He was finished for the season.

Nomo had long wanted to play in the MLB. He had watched the major leaguers play, faced them in postseason matchups against visiting MLB All-Star teams, and came to believe that he could throw a baseball as well as anybody else in he world.

He waited and hoped that an opportunity would present itself — before he accumulated the 10 years required for free agency (under the system established in 1992) or his arm disintegrated — whichever came first.

* * * * *

In 1994, a gunslinging Los Angeles-based player agent named Don Nomura, with designs on Japanese professional baseball talent, offered him a way out.

News photo
Unusual form: The National League's Hideo Nomo winds up to throw a pitch to the American League's Carlos Baerga in the 1995 MLB All-Star Game in Arlington, Texas. KYODO PHOTO

Nomura was half-Japanese, half-Caucasian, a 6-footer in his mid-30s who had been raised in Japan and after a varied career that saw him play for the Yakult Swallows farm team, make a fortune in real estate in Southern California, and purchase the Salinas Spurs minor league baseball team, had turned to agenting.

Nomura had been looking for a talented Japanese player who was courageous enough to want to challenge Japan's feudalistic professional baseball system.

Nomura had uncovered a loophole in the Japanese Uniform Players Contract called the "voluntary retirement" clause, which he confirmed after translating the document into English and showing it to the prominent L.A. attorney/sports agent Arn Tellem.

The Japanese UPC was basically the same as the MLB player contract, with one fundamental difference that had not been noticed by anyone else until Nomura came riding into town.

Whereas in the MLB pact, a retired player who wished to return to active status could play only for his former team with that team holding worldwide rights (unless, that is, he had become eligible for free agency), in Japan, a player who had retired and wanted to make a comeback was obligated to return to his former club only so long as he stayed in Japan.

Going to a foreign country to play was an entirely different matter. Thus, under the rules as they were written, a player who went on the NPB voluntarily retired list would be free to go play in the U.S.

The U.S. and Japan baseball commissioners were still bound by the U.S.-Japan Player Contract Agreement, also known as the Working Agreement, which had been drafted and signed in 1966 in the wake of a dispute over Masanori Murakami, a 19-year-old pitcher belonging to the Nankai Hawks who had been sent to the U.S. to train and then without completely understanding what he was doing wound up signing a contract with the San Francisco Giants — thereby obligating himself to play for two teams simultaneously, one on either side of the Pacific.

The Working Agreement, as it became known, required both sides to honor each other's baseball contracts and conventions.

However, the discovery that the standard UPC in Japan failed to specify worldwide rights in regard to the ownership of players, inadvertent though that failure to specify may have been (the contract had actually been a copy of a U.S. minor league player contract), provided the American side with an opening to go after Japan's stars, without actually violating any of the conditions of the Working Agreement.

The omission was perhaps understandable given the big gap that was believed to exist between the levels of play in the two countries at the time the document was signed — not to mention the social rules then in existence which required Japanese star players to be loyal to Japan.

Kyojin superstar Sadaharu Oh (1958-80), who had long been coveted by American baseball executives, remarked that even if he had known about the loophole he could not have gone.

"Feelings were very strong then," he said, "The fans never would have forgiven me."

* * * * *

The validity of the voluntary retired clause was recognized and clarified in a series of letters exchanged between American and Japanese baseball officials — the exchange having been prompted by Don Nomura.

The key document was a fax sent by Yoshiaki Kanai, the executive secretary to the Japanese baseball commissioner, on Dec. 9, 1994, in response to faxes he had received from William A. Murray, the executive of baseball operations in the MLB Commissioner's Office in New York, inquiring about the eligibility of voluntarily retired players in Japan before moving abroad.

The salient passage in the memo Kanai sent went as follows: "If a voluntarily retired player in Japan wishes to return to active status, he may sign only with his former team as far as he chooses to do so within our country, in other words he would be able to contact with teams in the United States."

That was as clear as one could possibly make it. Although Kanai, a former sportswriter, surely never intended his letter as an instrument by which Japanese stars could gain their freedom, that it is exactly what it became.

Both Nomo and Nomura have declared the decision for Nomo to leave Japan was made early in the 1994 season, well before the Kanai missive, so certain were they of the legality of their position.

It was why Nomo defied a long-standing Pacific League mandate that all players wear Mizuno shoes in the mid-season All-Star series and instead signed a contract with Nike to wear its brand that year, greatly angering executives in the Kintetsu organization which was getting a percentage of the PL deal with Mizuno.

During that subsequent off-season, with copies of the Kanai-Murray letters tucked away in Nomura's saddlebags, Nomo made a pretext of negotiating with Kintetsu officials. He asked that his salary for the 1994 season of $1.5 million be doubled and that he be given a six-year pact as well.

Nomo knew full well in advance that the front office would never agree. As he fully expected, Buffaloes president Yasuo Maeda turned him down flat. Maeda said that Nomo was too young for that kind of deal and noted that only gaijin players ever got that kind of contract.

Besides, Nomo had had a bad year and a sore arm. A salary cut was more like it.

Fine, Nomo said. He understood. Then he declared his retirement from Japanese baseball.

Kintetsu executives involved, as yet unaware of the existence of the Kansai-Murray letters, were incredulous.

"This is crazy," exclaimed one official. "Think of what you are doing to your career."

"I am," said Nomo, "That's why I am leaving."

A few days later, after attempts by Kintetsu executives to changes Nomo's mind failed, Nomo signed a letter of retirement and walked out of the Kintetsu offices a free man.

It had all gone according to plan.

* * * * *

"I knew they would never agree to the six-year deal," said Nomo, "and so I had made up my mind to go. If they had said yes, I would have had to sign, but I knew that would never happen."

News photo
Formidable tandem: Hideo Nomo's fortitude and the guile of agent Don Nomura paved the way for a move that rocked Japanese pro baseball to the core. KYODO PHOTO

Shortly thereafter, Nomura gave a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, where he announced that his client was going to try his hand in the MLB and held up copies of the Kanai-Murray letters for the world to see for the first time, thereby demonstrating the legitimacy of Nomo's actions.

Maeda was flabbergasted at the turn of events. He appealed to the commissioner's office for help.

But the men in the commissioner's office were just as dumbfounded. They had automatically, and mistakenly, assumed the Murray letter was simply a query regarding American players in Japan, not Japanese, since, at the time, the idea of a Japanese star in the prime of his career going to the U.S. was about as remote as the Japanese space program landing a man on the moon.

A free agency system, in which a player was free to sell himself to other teams after 10 years of service, had been established in 1992 at the behest of Yomiuri strongman Tsuneo Watanabe, who was eager to get his hands on star players from other organizations.

But no one dreamed a Japanese star would ever have the gumption to head overseas. Said one NPB official when he realized what had happened, "The MLB tricked us. We won't forget this."

Nomo faced intense criticism from the Japanese public over the next few weeks. He was labeled an "ingrate," a "troublemaker," a "traitor." Everyone had turned against him, the sports papers, baseball officials, fan groups and even big names like Oh, Shigeo Nagashima and Senichi Hoshino.

Among his critics was Nomo's own father.

"You don't have to embarrass the folks at Kintetsu like this," he said, "If you want to go, you have to find a better way."

"There is no better way," said Nomo, "and I don't want to spent the rest of my life regretting that I never tried. I want to see if I have what it takes to make it in the MLB."

For a time, the elder Nomo stopped speaking to his son.

* * * * *

It took an enormous amount of courage to do what Nomo did. The pressure grew so intense that even Nomura, his agent, began to have doubts about what they were doing and whether it was the right course of action, especially after the feared Yomiuri daimyo Watanabe, arguably the most powerful figure in Japanese baseball and one of the most powerful men in the country as well, had publicly branded them "bad people."

But Nomo never wavered. Not once.

"Let them talk," he said, "It's just hot air."

NPB officials subsequently eliminated the "Voluntary Retirement" clause, or "Nomo Clause" as it came to be known. But since, as chance would have it, they had neglected to notify the MLB Commissioner's office, as required by the Working Agreement stipulation on respective rules changes, their troubles did not end.

After heated discussions with MLB officials involving the rights to Hiroshima Carp player Alfonso Soriano, who also used the Nomo Clause to escape to the U.S., the Working Agreement was scrapped and replaced with the present posting system in which a team could auction off negotiating rights to MLB teams on a player it was willing to part with.

Among the Japanese stars who moved to the U.S. via this pathway were Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who were approaching free agency — the Boston Red Sox famously paying a $51.1 million posting fee to Matsuzaka's team, the Seibu Lions, for the right to powwow with the pitcher.

The Nomo Clause was no longer in effect. But it's place in history was secure.



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