There's a famous Japanese film about a 16th-century samurai who aids a band of young, innocent warriors against feudal overlords. Sanjuro, as the samurai calls himself (and as the film is titled), teaches the youths to question authority and helps them bring down the system. Don Nomura sees himself as a kind of 20th-century Sanjuro. He wants to emancipate Japan's baseball players and humble their front-office oppressors.
Nomura is the first players' agent in Japan, where free agency is considered a serious breach of decorum. "Over there, teams have always dealt with players one-on-one," says Nomura, 38, running his fingers through his buzz-cut reddish hair. He's a meticulous man, exacting, exhausting. "Japanese teams don't recognize agents for Japanese players," he says.
Which presented a problem when Kintetsu Buffaloes ace Hideo Nomo asked Nomura to negotiate his 1995 contract. Initially, the Buffaloes balked. Nomura was kicked out of the first negotiating session. And the second. After getting nowhere without Nomura, the team let him sit in on meeting No. 3. Nomura insisted on a multiyear pact, unprecedented for a native Japanese. Kintetsu told Nomo: Sign a one-year deal or quit. So Nomura had Nomo retire from Japanese ball and jump to the Los Angeles Dodgers. You know the rest.
The price of Nomo's freedom was high for Nomura. He has been blackballed by all 12 clubs in the Japanese league. Team officials routinely attack him in the press. Even the commissioner won't take his calls. "I'm called a self-promoter who wants to inflate costs," Nomura says. "But the more I'm blocked and badmouthed, the more energized I get. It reminds me of how I was treated as a kid."
Nomura knows discrimination. Growing up in Tokyo, he suffered the slights that haunt konketsu—children of mixed blood. His mother was Japanese, and his father was a white Jewish bowling-ball importer from Brooklyn. They divorced when Don was six. "In Japan, if you have a drop of different blood you're treated as an outsider," says Nomura, wincing slightly. "I didn't know what my identity was. I thought like a Japanese but looked like an American."
His mother married again, this time into baseball. Her new husband, catcher Katsuya (Moose) Nomura of the Nankai Hawks, was Japan's Triple Crown winner in 1965. His 657 career home runs still rank second in Japan behind Sadaharu Oh's 868. Moose adopted Don and gave him his Japanese surname. "It helped me get into places and meet people," says Don, who repaid the favor in 1990 when Moose became the skipper of the Yakult Swallows: Stepson worked out stepdad's contract.
Even as a boy, Don refused to kowtow. He was expelled from his English-language Catholic high school in Tokyo as a junior, for fighting. "I refused to kiss up to my teachers," he says. "They liked nice little boys who studied, and I wasn't a nice little boy." He wasn't a nice big boy, either. His confrontational nature didn't endear him to the Swallows, the team for which he spent four years, from 1978 to '81, wallowing as a bush league utility infielder.
In the Japanese game, personality and individuality are subordinated to wa—a sort of spirit of group harmony. To screw up is to bring shame to the team. And Nomura was a classic screwup. He clashed with coaches, ballplayers, even the team's bus driver. "I wasn't afraid to ask questions," he says. "And in Japan, to ask a question can be an offense in itself."
For the affront of asking his manager if he could play in a game, Nomura was once benched for two weeks. "The regimentation drove me crazy." he says. "I came to the pros thinking baseball was something I loved. I found it was something I hated. I left the game thinking I never wanted to pick up a baseball again."
In 1981 the 24-year-old Nomura moved to California, where he had studied from 75 to '77 at Cal Poly Pomona. He bused tables in several restaurants. He worked behind a desk in a travel agency. He washed cars and cleaned toilets, and he managed a motel for $10 a night. He moonlighted as an interpreter and invested his pay in California real estate. By 1989 he had enough cash, $300,000, to buy 50% of a Class A team, the Salinas Spurs.