LIKE A FEARSOME TATSUMAKI, THE Japanese word for tornado from which pitcher Hideo Nomo’s windup got its name, Nomo is a wonder to behold—and a source of terror to anyone standing in his path. Facing his foe, the L.A. Dodgers’ rookie raises his arms and slowly pirouettes, turning his back to the plate. Then, after a maddening pause, Nomo whirls and unleashes a sinking forkball that leaves batters dumb with disbelief. Nomo—his first name, pronounced He-DAY-o, means, fittingly, “a superman”—claims to be mystified by the ruckus his trademark windup has caused. “I just wanted to pitch,” says Nomo, 26, through an interpreter. “Every part came naturally. Even I don’t know how it formed.”
Nomo is the first native Japanese player to reach the majors in 30 years and this week becomes the first to play in the All-Star game. As his league-leading 119 strikeouts attest, he is one of the game’s most feared pitchers. “I don’t want to see that guy again in my life—he got me all confused,” said the New York Yankees’ Luis Polonia after facing him in an exhibition game. “Thank God he’s in the National League so I don’t have to worry about him.” At Nomo’s May debut some predicted he would become a sideshow act, a gimmick to lure strike-weary fans back to the ballpark. But San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker, whose team Nomo recently undid with a two-hit shutout, scoffs at that idea. “Publicity stunts don’t throw two-hitters,” he says.
Nevertheless, for L.A.—and Major League Baseball, which has been struggling to recoup a 20 percent drop in attendance in this strike-shortened season—Nomomania has hit like a bolt from Dodger Heaven. He broke Sandy Koufax’s Dodger record of 49 strikeouts in four games: Nomo has 50. Says Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda: “I wish I could speak his language. I’d tell him how much we appreciate him.” So would Dodger president Peter O’Malley. Nomo has been drawing huge home crowds—the stadium organist plays “Sukiyaki” when he pitches and Asian-American fans notch his strikeouts on K-cards. Busloads of Japanese tourists show up at the park, even when there’s no game, just to buy Nomobilia, including tornado-emblazoned baseballs and Nomo shirts. And in Japan his U.S. debut was broadcast live at 4:30 a.m., Tokyo time. “Nomo is universally loved by all Asians,” says Ray Kim Suzuki, a Japanese/Korean-American fan, at Dodger Stadium. “He’s our pride.”
In the eye of the storm the Tornado remains remarkably calm. He responds politely when U.S. reporters pepper him with questions in the clubhouse. By contrast, a swarm of Japanese journalists applaud politely during post-game interviews and address him formally as “Nomo San,” then listen in respectful silence even when he refuses to answer their questions.
The reticence is perhaps understandable given the scrutiny directed at Nomo from both sides of the Pacific. The oldest son of Shizuo, 56, an Osaka postal worker, and his wife, Kayoko, 54, Nomo (who has one brother, Eiji, 25) developed his tornado delivery as a high school star and later led Japan’s national team to a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. The Japanese Pacific League’s rookie of the year and most valuable player in 1990, Nomo was considered one of Japan’s best pitchers when he left the Kintetsu Buffaloes, in January, in part over a falling out with his manager. After being courted by several U.S. teams he signed with the Dodgers for one year with a $2 million bonus and a $109,000 salary. Nomo was also lured to the U.S. by the prospect of facing power hitters. “I had to go,” says Nomo, who phones his wife of 4½ years, Kikuko, and son Takahiro, 3, in Osaka daily “My wife understands. She agreed with what I wanted to do.”
Although he keeps an apartment in L.A., Nomo says he goes there “only to sleep” and spends “almost 100 percent of my waking time concentrating on baseball.” His interpreter Michael Okumura, 28, picks him up most mornings and takes him to the stadium long before any other player arrives. Nomo knows a few words of English and communicates with fellow pitching sensation Ismael Valdes, whom he calls yohkina [funky] Mexican, with a sort of multilingual body language. Signs that Nomo is acclimating are the blue jeans in his locker, his admiration for Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens and his appetite for American food. “I eat what anybody serves,” he says.
His teammates have taken to him, but in the clubhouse, where the players often rib each other, Nomo keeps to himself, reading Japanese newspapers and listening to Motoharu Sano, a Japanese pop star. “It’s a little tough to kid a guy when he can’t understand what you’re saying,” says bullpen coach Mark Cresse. “Once he learns the language,” adds second baseman Delino DeShields, “he’ll show everybody who Hideo Nomo really is.” Until then they need only be on the lookout for a tornado.
LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles and LARRY FUHRMANN in Osaka