His own clubhouse, clamorous though it may be, is an isolation chamber for 26-year-old Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Hideo Nomo. Alone, he sits solemnly as teammates amuse themselves before game time with familiar Americana: heavy-metal music on the CD player, NBA games on the tube and box scores in the Sunday editions. Nomo, who knows only a few words of English, is a wallflower at this dance. Sometimes he can be just as lost on the pitching mound, as happened in an odd cultural collision on Sunday at Coors Field in Denver when the Dodgers' Dominican shortstop hollered something to the Japanese pitcher.
"Step off! Step off!" yelled Jose Offerman, noting the ominously generous lead that Walt Weiss of the Colorado Rockies had taken off second base.
Nomo had no idea what Offerman was talking about. Rather than step off the rubber, he continued with his pitch to the plate. The unchecked Weiss stole third.
In coming to America, Nomo has stumbled over the expected cultural and linguistic hurdles, but at the same time he has shown an unmistakable fluency. It is in his pitching delivery, which begins when he thrusts both hands high above his head, stretching his arms in the exaggerated manner of a man awakening from a long nap. There is a dramatic pause. Then he executes a half pirouette, turning his back to the plate, wrapping his right arm behind him as if reaching for a wallet in his back left pocket. Finally, he gracefully unwinds to deliver a fastball at up to 91 mph or a forkball with a nasty downward bite. It is haiku in motion.
Only with that fascinating body language does Nomo reveal himself. Heaven knows there are no revelations in his awkward interviews, in which his answers are translated by an interpreter. Buckingham Palace guards are more forthcoming than Nomo. He has grown so press-wary that he mooned persistent Japanese journalists during spring training and agreed to field questions from SI only after extracting a promise "not to sell your story to the Japanese media."
Although Nomo is only the second Japanese player to make the major leagues—and the first to do so from a Japanese professional team—he dislikes being a curiosity. "The Americans' interest in me is because I am from Japan," he says. "Now I'd like to let them know I can compete on this level as myself, as Hideo Nomo."
As himself, Nomo sent mixed messages with his first two starts. In his May 2 debut, against the San Francisco Giants, he pitched five shutout innings and permitted only one hit. Five days later the Rockies pounded him for seven runs on nine hits (three of them home runs) in 4? innings. He came away from the two starts with no decisions and a 6.52 ERA, but also with 14 strikeouts in 9? innings. Translation: He has big league stuff but needs refining, especially in the location of his pitches, before he generates the kind of excitement once evoked by another Dodger who spoke little English, Fernando Valenzuela.
"He's got a good fastball," says Colorado manager Don Baylor, "but he found out it doesn't matter what side of the Pacific you're from, you can't elevate the ball in Denver. Every time he made a mistake, we got him."
Says Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, "People have to remember that he is an established professional. It's not like with [South Korean pitcher] Chan Ho Park last year, where language was a problem because we had to go into details with him. This guy knows what to do."
Nomo put together a 78-46 record and 3.15 ERA over five seasons with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japanese Pacific League. He led the league in wins and strikeouts for four consecutive seasons before injuring his shoulder last year. Worried that he was being overused, he hired a personal trainer and resisted his manager's traditional Japanese thinking about pitching through pain. Also, tired of playing for a non-winner, Nomo demanded a trade after the season. When the Buffaloes refused, Nomo hired an agent, Don Nomura, with ties to the major leagues, and he retired from Japanese ball. That got Nomo around Japan's 10-year service minimum for free agency and permitted him to negotiate with U.S. teams.