By Jack Gallagher
TOKYO -- While massive media attention has been focused on which MLB team would land Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanaka for the past month, the man who made it all possible briefly returned to the spotlight recently.
It has been 19 years since Hideo Nomo upbraided the Nippon Professional Baseball establishment by retiring from the Kintetsu Buffaloes and jumping to the major leagues and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In a surprise move, Nomo was elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this month, along with fellow former major leaguer Kazuhiro Sasaki, outfielder Koji Akiyama and the late Choichi Aida.
How unexpected was Nomo's election?
"I did not even know I was a nominee," the now 45-year-old right-hander said at a news conference last week. "I am surprised at the result, but also very happy."
Nomo received 82.4 percent of the 324 votes, well above the 75 percent necessary for election. In gaining the honor, he became the youngest member of the Hall of Fame here. He was 78-46 in five seasons with a 3.15 ERA for the Buffaloes, racking up 1,204 strikeouts along the way.
The Osaka native was named the 1990 Pacific League Rookie of the Year after going 18-8. He was drafted by Kintetsu following three seasons in Japan's corporate league, and garnered considerable attention after helping to lead the Hinomaru to the silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Nomo's election to the Hall of Fame was not greeted with universal approval, however. In fact, it is a move that has some experts scratching their heads.
Longtime baseball analyst Fumihiro Fujisawa, who is also president of the Association of American Baseball Research, is not convinced the honor is deserving.
"I was surprised that Hideo Nomo was elected," said Fujisawa. "Both Nomo and Sasaki are the youngest members. There are still a lot of people who deserve election, but did not make it yet. The reason they were elected is because the selection committee included their careers in the major leagues. But I think the stats in NPB should be considered first."
Nomo and Sasaki became the first players to make the Hall whose careers were split between NPB and MLB. The Japanese Hall of Fame has 184 members, of whom 37 are still living.
What makes the timing of Nomo's election even more questionable is the way the Hall of Fame highlighted the fact that he was "only the third player elected in his first year of eligibility" after pitcher Victor Starffin and home run king Sadaharu Oh.
Sounds impressive, right?
But when digging beneath the surface, it was learned that an individual who is "still in uniform" like a manager or coach, is ineligible for consideration.
Some examples include Yomiuri Giants legend Shigeo Nagashima, who upon his retirement in 1974 became the team's manager following a career that saw him hit 444 home runs and help lead the club to 11 Japan Series titles, and hurler Masaichi Kaneda, who won 400 games, but became the manager of the Lotte Orions four seasons after retiring.
It also interesting to note that the Russian-born Starffin and American school teacher Horace Wilson, who is credited with introducing the game in Japan in 1872, are the lone foreign-born members.
The GM of one NPB team, who requested anonymity, said he felt Nomo was elected "a little too early."
"I'm not sure if he deserved to be elected on the first ballot at the age of 45," the GM said. "His record is good, but not that good."
He then cited the most recent additions to Cooperstown as an example.
"Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, those are all first-ballot Hall of Famers. Is Nomo in that category? I don't think so."
The GM said that he credited Nomo getting in the very first time he was eligible more to a "social impact than an athletic impact."
"Nomo made a lot of impact both in Japan and the States, and that counts for a lot," he noted. "But was he on the same level as Oh (who hit 868 home runs) and Starffin (Japan's first 300-game winner)? I think not."
Sasaki's body of work in Japan is far more significant than Nomo's. The Sendai native spent 12 years in NPB with the Yokohama franchise. Sasaki was a first-round pick of the Taiyo Whales in 1989. The team changed its name to Yokohama BayStars before the 1993 season.
Known by the nickname "Daimajin" (based on a fictional stone warrior depicted in the movies), Sasaki starred on the 1998 squad that brought the franchise its first Japan Series title since 1960. Sasaki notched 45 saves that season and was named the Central League's Most Valuable Player.
By the time Sasaki retired in 2005, he had saved a record 252 NPB games with a 2.41 ERA. These numbers, along with his 129 saves in four seasons with the Seattle Mariners (2000-2003), combined to make a strong case for the relief ace's inclusion.
Though Nomo, who was known as "The Tornado" for his unique windup, won over 200 games between NPB and MLB, 123 of them came in the latter (with eight different teams), along with two no-hitters.
Fujisawa believes Nomo's entrance into the Hall comes down to the wide berth the electors are given in selecting new members.
"I think there is a big difference between Japan and the USA in the Hall of Fame as well as in baseball," states Fujisawa. "In Japan, there are many amateur inductees and even presidents of a publishing company like Baseball Magazine and a sporting goods company like Mizuno."
Fujisawa feels the Japanese Hall of Fame needs to make some changes going forward to give it more credibility.
"We need clearer guidelines or selection rules," he commented.
The present regulations say a player has to be retired for five years before becoming eligible for consideration.
Nomo was nothing short of a pariah when he departed Japan in early 1995 to join the Dodgers, with the likes of both Oh and Nagashima denouncing his move.
He was ripped by the Japanese media, who called him a "traitor," "troublemaker" and an "ingrate," according to author Robert Whiting, who penned both "You Gotta Have Wa" and "Meaning of Ichiro."
After going 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA and winning the National League's Rookie of the Year award in 1995 as the Dodgers made the playoffs, Nomo returned to Japan a conquering hero. There is little question that he had changed the game profoundly. He went on to post a 123-109 mark with a 4.24 ERA in 12 seasons in the majors.
Jim Small, MLB's vice president for Asia, in a 2009 interview with the Tokyo American Club magazine noted that Nomo's success was beneficial in more ways than one.
"It is difficult to underestimate the impact [Nomo's] move to the Dodgers had not only on future Japanese players, but on the popularity of MLB in Japan," he said. "He absolutely opened the door for Ichiro and [Hideki] Matsui and Matsuzaka. Before Hideo, playing in the major was a dream. After him, it was a possibility."
Whiting finds great irony in Nomo's election by the Japanese Hall of Fame after what transpired when he broke away from the game here.
"The NPB wants to share in his glory. Or they are embarrassed about the way they treated him and want to make up for it?" he responded when asked about it.
Nomo's prickly relationship with the Japanese press over the years has been nothing short of legendary.
There was the time when a crew from national broadcaster NHK got too close to him after being warned not to. Nomo then boycotted interviews with the company for three years.
But one of his most notorious incidents came in August of his rookie season in San Francisco. The Giants had organized several events to honor former pitcher Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese to play in the majors in 1964-65.
Along with a youth baseball clinic, and a reception in his honor in the city's Japantown, the Giants had a night for Murakami at Candlestick Park.
Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley saw to it that Nomo started that game for his team, and with Murakami scheduled to throw out the first pitch, the huge number of photographers assembled were clamoring for a shot of the only two Japanese major leaguers ever together.
Because months earlier Murakami, in a column for Baseball Magazine, had criticized Nomo's attitude during his move to the majors.
Despite the snub long ago, Murakami believes Nomo is deserving of a place in the Japanese Hall of Fame.
"Based on his career in Japan and the majors, I think his election is justified," he said. "Even though he is the youngest to get in, I am not surprised that he made it. I think it is a fair judgment."
Also during the 1995 season, Nomo consented to an interview with Sports Illustrated on one condition - they not give it to the Japanese media.
Since his retirement, Nomo has been running his company in Tokyo and working with his own youth baseball team. But don't think that means he has gone soft.
Some people mellow with time, others don't. Consider Nomo among the latter. He remains an enigma to many to this day.
When he was invited to be a guest at a Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan meeting in Tokyo in 2009, he declined. The group had previously hosted the likes of Oh, Murakami and Bobby Valentine, among others.
"I have no intention of attending that meeting, he said," came the answer from the assistant in Nomo's office at the time the invitation was extended.
Nomo, who was able to make the jump to the majors with the help of Don Nomura, also split with his former agent several years ago. Whiting attributed the breakup to "a disagreement over an investment deal."
Showing he is still a rebel, Nomo pulled off one final act of defiance after being informed that the Japanese Hall of Fame would have a press conference to introduce its newest members in Tokyo on January 17.
He didn't show up.
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Jack Gallagher is the executive sports editor of The Japan Times in Tokyo. He has been a sports journalist in Japan for 18 years and has been honored for his writing both domestically and internationally. He was previously an executive in public relations in the NBA and NFL Europe.