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Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010

Nomo's legacy should land him in Hall of Fame


Special to The Japan Times

Fourth in a four-part series

News photo
Expert advice: Hideo Nomo (right) gives pointers to Buffaloes pitcher Tsuyoshi Kikuchihara while serving as a coach during Orix's fall camp in 2008. KYODO PHOTO

It is doubtful that Hideo Nomo and Don Nomura realized the full significance of what they were doing back in 1995 when they defied Nippon Professional Baseball and migrated to the United States. But many of the changes that followed in the wake of their actions may never have taken place or at the very least might have been delayed had they not opened the particular door that they did.

Without Nomo and his agent, one could argue, the "voluntary retirement" clause would not have been discovered, and the "posting system," which subsequently replaced it and led to the signings of Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, among others, by Major League Baseball teams, would not have been created.

Without Nomo and the Japanese players who subsequently appeared on MLB rosters, there would not have been any MLB Opening Day games played in Japan.

Without the unprecedented example of Nomo standing up to Japanese baseball's long-standing feudalistic system, there might not have been the historic NPB player strike in 2004, which successfully blocked the NPB's planned contraction to eight teams and resulted in the creation of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, interleague play and the informal ban on player agents being eased. Without Nomo, there might not have been the establishment of the World Baseball Classic.

Nomo's presence convinced the MLB that there would be ample Japanese money and quality players who would love to be associated with the majors.

Said Itaru Kobayashi, an executive with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and a graduate of the Columbia School of Business, "Some people may say that internationalization would have come anyway. The bottom half of (the) '90s was the start of globalization in sports business, represented by the NBA and the English Premier League. Those sales figures of most of the major sport organizations skyrocketed from late '90s to first half of the '00s. Perhaps Ichiro might have ended up playing in the MLB anyway, but probably not in 2001 without Nomo's precedent."

Indeed, one could argue that had it not been for Nomo opening the floodgates, none of the 41 players who followed him would have summoned up the nerve to desert the Japanese game and head for the major leagues.

As pitcher Hiroki Kuroda told reporters in 2008, "If it hadn't been for Nomo, it would have been very difficult for any of us to be here."

Moreover, the success of Japanese stars like Nomo, Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, changed the stereotypical image of the Japanese. As the Asahi Shimbun wrote in an editorial about the exploits of Japanese players in the MLB, "Japanese were once seen in the U.S. as a 'faceless' people obsessed with exporting cars and consumer electronics. The excellent play of the Japanese players and their positive personalities have changed the American image of the Japanese."

Prize-winning sports writer Midori Masujima added this insight: "Having Japanese baseball heroes in MLB helped ease the complex toward the U.S. in many ways."

* * * * *

Nomo returned to Japan in retirement and for a time coached for the Orix Buffaloes. However, the Orix brain trust did not appreciate his American-style ideas on practice and conditioning and let him go after two seasons.

This spring, he was a part-time adviser for the Hiroshima Carp and he financially supports a team in Japan's Industrial League. But he has kept his distance from the American game. He recently refused an offer of $100,000 just to fly to L.A. and throw out the first pitch for a Dodgers game, saying he did not want to interrupt a planned vacation in Oregon with his wife and children.

Most observers think Nomo will eventually occupy a spot in Japan's Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, despite the acrimony that exists among ownership over his defection to the majors. But will his special place in history qualify him for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.?

As of 2010, there were 292 members in the Hall of Fame, including players, managers, team and league executives. Only 1 percent of all MLB players in the modern era have made it in. Forty-one percent of them were elected by the members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) in annual voting. The rest, 59 percent, were elected by the Hall of Fame Committee on Baseball Veterans and the Committee on Negro Leagues.

The standard for admission by the Baseball Writers' Association of America is very high, which is why only less than half have made it into the Hall via their vote. A player becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame five years after retirement. A player who is not voted in by the BBWAA within a period of 20 years after his retirement, then becomes eligible for selection only by the Veterans Committee. The Veterans Committee holds elections for players to be inducted in odd-numbered years, while even numbered years see elections on managers, umpires and other individuals involved in baseball.

The system is not perfect. The requirement that BBWAA members must decide Hall of Fame inductees eliminates, unfairly many would say, managers, former players, front office executives, owners and scouts — all of them, one who think, would be eminently more qualified than baseball writers to judge excellence. And although there are many savvy baseball minds among the writers, there are also those who are petty and vindictive — angry at a certain player, say, for not granting an interview — as well as others who are just too lazy to vote.

One could legitimately ask why Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record with 61 in 1961, is not in the Hall of Fame. The argument writers will give you is that Maris had only a few standout seasons in his career. But critics of the present system would say that Maris' 61 home runs were so historically important that whatever else he did, or did not do, should not matter.

But be that as it may, it is the system that Nomo must contend with.

Nomo finished his MLB career with a record of 123 wins and 109 losses and an ERA of 4.24, not exactly what present-day writers would consider Hall of Fame numbers. Nor is his 200th win combining his Japan and U.S. records, which was much ballyhooed in the Japanese sports press, impressive to most North American baseball writers, since many of them still view the Japanese pro game as second rate.

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Blazing the trail: Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, seen in a 1952 portrait, broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947. AP PHOTO

Said Rick Wolff, the well-known sports editor of Grand Central Publishing, radio show host and himself a former minor league player, "As far as Hideo is concerned, I don't think there's much chance of his being elected into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. That is, he had a fine career here, and a lot of strikeouts, and two no-hitters, but to me, to be a Hall of Famer, you have to be the dominant pitcher during your time in the big leagues.

"In truth, Nomo was a fine pitcher, but I am not sure he was the best during his era. When I think of dominant pitchers in those times, I'm thinking of guys like Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Roger Clemens — before he used steroids that is."

Nomo never won 20 games in a season, which leaves him trailing a number of pitchers who have logged multiple 20-win seasons, and pitched no-hitters as well, who were not elected to the Hall. What's more, Nomo's record is not even as good as that of another imported Dodger phenom, Mexican Fernando Valenzuela, who had a career record of 173-153, with a 3.54 ERA, and created a wave of interest amongst fans, Latino and otherwise in Southern California that was dubbed Fernandomania.

Valenzuela was a five-time All-Star, while Nomo only played in one All-Star Game. Valenzuela is not in the Hall, either.

"I think Nomo did some wonderful things and he opened the gates, but he is not a Hall vote-getter. If he had three more good years in MLB he would be in," said Bobby Valentine, who guided the New York Mets to the 2000 World Series and also led the Chiba Lotte Mariners to the 2005 Japan Series title.

But there is more to membership in the Hall than mere numbers and contributions to the game come in varying forms. Jackie Robinson did not have what most would consider Hall of Fame statistics. He played only 10 seasons, had a lifetime batting average of .311 with 137 home runs, 734 RBIs and a postseason career batting average of .234 in 38 games. Yet, he broke the long-standing color barrier when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and became the first African-American to play in the majors.

Before Robinson made his Brooklyn debut, many baseball people thought blacks were incapable of playing at the highest levels of U.S. baseball. As Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey told the Boston Globe in April of that year before Robinson had played his first game, "Blacks have no chance against whites on the baseball diamond. They simply don't have what it takes to make the effort."

Yawkey passed at a chance to sign both Robinson and Willie Mays. Robinson, overcame racial discrimination and, at times, endured unspeakable acts of hatred from whites. He forced Yawkey to eat his words and ushered in the era of the black MLB stars like Mays, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and others who would write their names all over the record book. By the same token, Nomo opened the door for Japanese stars like Ichiro, Matsui and Matsuzaka to go to the U.S. and make their own contributions to the game. Notable among them is Ichiro's single-season hit mark of 262 and his current record of 10 straight 200-hit seasons.

Said Nomo's former teammate, one-time Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros, "The scrutiny that all other Japanese players endured after Nomo pales in comparison to what Nomo went through."

"There's Nomo up here," added Karros, "then there's the rest. You have (Kazuhisa) Ishii, Ichiro, all those guys who came from Japan to the U.S., but Nomo's the man. For him to come over and leave a successful career behind in Japan the way he did, hey, he had to have some guts to do that. And then to succeed the way he did with the media watching him 24 hours a day? There may be better players from Japan who come to MLB, but Nomo will always be the man."

Added Dave Wallace, who was Nomo's first pitching coach in the U.S., "He was the first one. He had everything to lose and nothing to gain. He set the table for a lot of other guys, who are now reaping the benefits. Japanese players will always owe him for that."

* * * * *

Of course, no one can compare what Nomo went through to what Robinson endured. Robinson was forced to stay in segregated hotels in some cities and had to endure a constant stream of abuse from white fans and certain players who did not want Major League Baseball to be integrated. For his part, while Nomo experienced some degree of prejudice, as has been documented, it was nothing like what Robinson had to put up with.

Moreover, whereas Robinson broke down U.S. barriers in regard to blacks, Nomo only broke down barriers in Japan for Japanese going abroad to play baseball. They are two different things. Thus, Nomo's significance was much greater in Japan than America.

As Tokyo-based consultant and Georgetown University graduate Mitch Murata put it, "It's not like Nomo was breaking a yellow barrier as Jackie Robinson did with the color barrier."

Marty Kuehnert, sports entrepreneur, author of six books on Japanese baseball and an Eagles consultant, added this perspective: "The baseball writers will say that Nomo is not in the same category of Jackie Robinson, because whereas Robinson helped change American society, Nomo, by and large, affected a big change only in Japanese society."

However, to some observers, like Jack Gallagher, sports editor of The Japan Times, Nomo's admission is a foregone conclusion. Back in 1995, when Gallagher was consulting for the San Francisco Giants, he had proposed and helped organize a 30th anniversary celebration the San Francisco Giants held in honor of Masanori "Mashi" Murakami — the first Japanese to play in the majors (1964-65). Gallagher contacted the National Baseball Hall of Fame to ask if Murakami was eligible to make the Hall because he was the first Japanese to play in the majors.

In a letter dated Feb. 6, 1996, and copied to all Hall of Fame officers, this is part of the response Gallagher received from Jeff Idelson, the director of public relations and promotions for the Hall of Fame:

Dear Jack:

Thanks so much for your correspondence regarding Masanori Murakami. It has taken some time to respond, as I wanted to share your information with my colleagues here at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

. . . Unfortunately, Mashi will not be eligible for consideration by the Veterans Committee. Of course there is great historical significance in being the first ballplayer of Japanese ancestry to play Major League Baseball, but, he does not meet the service requirements as a player, and quite honestly, does not fit in the "pioneer" category either.

A pioneer is regarded as someone who starts a trend. To this point, there has not been a trend of Japanese baseball players joining American teams.

Said Gallagher, "If Nomo doesn't fit the category of pioneer, then I don't know who does."

Still another person who is convinced Nomo will make it to the Hall of Fame is former Dodger owner Peter O'Malley, who said the following in a recent interview: "Will Nomo be elected to the Hall of Fame? Yes, definitely. Absolutely. He was a pioneer who changed the game of Major League Baseball in America by opening the door to other Japanese players. People don't realize how difficult it was for him. When Nomo signed with us, we had no one in our organization, outside the front office, who could speak Japanese — no one on the coaching staff, none of the trainers or doctors, none of the players. What Nomo accomplished in the face of those obstacles was extraordinary.

"When you realize he just dropped into Los Angeles out of the blue, speaking no English whatsoever, with no prior knowledge of American customs or ways of playing baseball, and still succeeded, you have to tip your hat to him. I don't know what phase of the Hall of Fame voting Nomo will be elected in — whether it is by the writers or the Veterans Committee — but I am positively certain that he will be voted in.

News photo
Historic figure: Masanori "Mashi" Murakami throws out the first pitch on Masanori Murakami Night in August 1995 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Murakami, a pitcher who played for the Giants in 1964-65, was the first Japanese to play in the major leagues. KYODO PHOTO

"Nomo was the utmost professional. A real pro. People criticized him for being uncommunicative, for not talking to the press or his teammates more, but they misunderstand him. He was a true professional who only wanted to focus on his job 24 hours a day. He did not like chit-chat or talking about minor, trivial things. For him, it interfered with the way of his concentration, his preparation, his training.

"Away from the stadium, he was a delightful young man. I liked him from the very first day I met him in my office and I know he felt comfortable with us right from the beginning. We always kept a close relationship. I still keep in touch with him and his two sons."

"My single best memory of Nomo is the no-hitter he pitched in Denver. He had everything going against him — the altitude and thin air, the most dangerous batting lineup in the N.L., bad weather and a long rain delay. It was really hard for him to pitch the no-hitter, but he did it anyway. I keep coming back to his professionalism. That was something he did not learn from the MLB.

"It was something he already had when he was back in Japan. He wanted the challenge of coming to America and facing the best hitters in the world. And he did. And he succeeded. And he opened the door for so many others. And that is why he will be elected to the Hall of Fame."

* * * * *

One might also mention the effect Nomo has had on the economics of baseball as justification for admission into the Hall. Since Nomo played his first game, it is estimated that MLB had earned over $300 million in revenue from ticket sales, the sales of TV and radio rights to MLB games in Japan, merchandising, licensing, advertising and sponsorships, directly from Japanese sources alone, not to mention the interest Japanese players generated among American fans. As Kobayashi, the Hawks executive, stated, "He deserves the Hall from a purely business standpoint."

Nomo will be eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame in 2013. What the judgment of the BBWAA or the Veterans Committee will be is something we will have to wait to find out.



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