Having purchased a Hall of Fame ballot, which we'll be filling out in accordance with the wishes of our readers, we're examining the merits—and relative lack of merits—of all 36 players on this year's ballot for the purposes of better informing the electorate, i.e., you. All entries in the series can be found here.
Nomomania wrapped you up in something that you didn't quite understand. It had nothing to do with winning or losing; it was excitement built on a foundation of excitement. In retrospect, the most fascinating thing about it was the relative absence of the man himself. You didn't find Hideo Nomo speaking at elementary schools or shilling breakfast cereals like Fernando Valenzuela did in 1981, or sitting courtside at Lakers games like Yasiel Puig in 2013. Other people talked about Nomo; the man himself didn't.
He went into his ritual windup, summoning pitches from a place no one else had access to. He walked back from the mound, keeping his eyes on the grass. He disappeared from the public eye between starts. They called him the Tornado, but he was quiet and still, even at the center of a storm of tchochkes and sellout crowds at Dodger Stadium and kids who were mesmerized by his windup, his forkball, and even his name. We said it a lot. Nomo, Nomo, Nomo.
Loving or not loving Nomo was never a consideration. He wasn't some hero like Mike Piazza or Ramon Martinez; he was a player you were awed by. In Los Angeles, a city that makes men into metaphors just by putting them on television, Nomo transcended his own performance immediately.
In 1995, the year the baseball strike ended, he exploited a loophole to get out of his Japanese contract, and signed in February, coming in essentially as a replacement for Dodgers legend Orel Hershiser. In his first start, he tossed five shutout innings, allowing one hit and striking out seven. The Dodgers blew a 3-0 lead, then lost the game in the 15th, but no matter; Nomo was, immediately, the symbol of a Dodger franchise that felt ascendent in both moral and baseball terms, an antidote to strike-related cynicism. As the first player who'd come to the majors from the Japanese league since Masanori Murakami decades earlier, Nomo hearkened back to Valenzuela, to Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, to the idea that the Dodgers were an innovative and upstanding franchise.
This was a good time to be a Dodgers fan. Nomo would become the fourth of five consecutive Rookies of the Year. He was also part of what the Los Angeles Times called a "United Nations pitching rotation." In the mid-'90s, the Dodgers trotted out starters from the United States, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Mexico, and Japan. The pitcher from Mexico was Ismael Valdez (then spelled Valdes). He became Nomo's best friend. They sat next to one another in the dugout. Valdez seemed to draw Nomo's personality out in a way fans and the media couldn't.
Growing up, I had a friend named John John, a hyper kid with a scratchy voice whose hyperness always seemed to have some specific aim: getting a pickup basketball game together, improving his fast-twitch muscles by chasing footballs somebody spiked at the ground, making people love or hate him. It was through him that I met Nomo.
John John was one of those kids who fought like hell for autographs. He would run up a surplus and then use it in some highly calculated trade. When it came to getting autographs at Dodgers games, he operated on another level. He befriended security guards, who let him slip past barriers and fed him intelligence. (For a while after high school, he was a club promoter. He was probably great at it.)
One night we were at Dodger Stadium with John John's dad. After the game ended, John John extracted the location of Nomo's secret parking lot from an usher—a real and serious achievement, given that Nomo was the Holy Grail of Dodger autographs, seemingly capable of teleporting in and out of the stadium. (He couldn't use the team lot because the Japanese paparazzi would overwhelm him and his teammates, so he parked on the other side of the ballpark.) We set off in a dead sprint across the stadium's terraced lots and came to a small, semi-enclosed space. A handful of people were lurking, holding out their markers and memorabilia like offerings.
We waited a few minutes, wondering which car is Nomo's. There were some SUVs, some sedans, and a bright yellow sports car—a Lamborghini or Ferrari or whatever. Finally, Nomo emerged beside his translator and his friend Ismael Valdes. He signed for us, and so did Valdes. I don't remember the physical act of receiving the autograph; it must have been transactional, the way autograph signings generally go. But I remember watching Ismael Valdes step into the yellow sports car and speed off, and Nomo and his translator slipping quietly into one of the sedans.
Such was Nomo's departure from the Dodgers. He was a phenomenon, and then he lost the strike zone. Being traded to the Mets for Dave Mlicki and Greg McMichael is the baseball equivalent of driving away from your own personal temple in a sedan. Toward the end of Nomo's tenure with the Dodgers, as he scuffed along with an earned run average twice as high as it was in his first year in the States, some baseball folks began to whisper that the league had figured him out, that he was a gimmick pitcher, and that he had stopped being effective because hitters learned to lay off the gimmick—his forkball.
The thing about phenomena like Nomomania or Fernandomania is that they're inherently unsustainable; even had Nomo maintained his early excellence, the hype surrounding him would have calmed. Instead of disappearing altogether, though, he pitched effectively into his mid-30s, bouncing from the Mets to the Tigers to the Red Sox, and back to the Dodgers. His last good season came in L.A. in 2003. He went 16-13 with a 3.09 ERA, even though his strikeout rate had dropped by a third.
The idea that Nomo was some sort of one-trick pitcher was clearly rooted in his foreignness, in his delivery, in the way he made established American ballplayers look like fools chasing pitches in the dirt. He was a big league pitcher who outgrew his own hype, and a harbinger of change. In Nomo's rookie season, he was the only Japanese player in the major leagues. By 2008, the year he attempted his final comeback with the Royals, he was one of 19.
There are a lot of valid reasons to believe that the Hall of Fame is a worthless, corrupt institution that only taints the baseball museum in Cooperstown. But if the Hall is to be saved, it will be saved only by recognizing that greatness comes in many forms. Greatness can come just as easily in the form of a career 4.24 ERA as in the form of 300 wins. And it can certainly come in the form of a transformative moment just as easily as in the form of a long, slogging career that ultimately changes nothing about the way we watch baseball.
Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. He is a co-founder of The Classical and his work has appeared in Deadspin, Slate, Outside, The Daily Beast, and The Best American Sports Writing. You can reach him on Twitter @ericnus.
Art by Sam Woolley