Season Four Episode 4

The Loophole

In 1995, star pitcher Hideo Nomo attempted to do what no Japanese player had done since 1965 – join Major League Baseball. Nomo and his agent hatched a plan to overcome the legal and cultural barriers that stood in his way, risking Nomo’s career and reputation in Japan. The Loophole reveals how they pulled it off, launched “Nomo-mania,” and transformed both American and Japanese baseball forever.

Transcript

 


JODY AVIRGAN: Hello and welcome to 30 for 30 podcasts from ESPN Films and ESPN Audio, my name is Jody Avirgan.

Today, the winding path to Nomomania. Hideo Nomo took baseball by storm in 1995, seeming to appear out of nowhere with a crazy windup and unhittable stuff.

 

Lately, of course, Japanese-born players have thrived in major league baseball — Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Shohei Otani to name just a few. But before Hideo Nomo, Japanese players were effectively banned from coming to the major leagues.

 

This is the little-known history of how that changed, thanks to a strong-willed player, a rebellious agent, and an obscure, overlooked clause in an old contract.

 

Producer Andrew Muscato brings us the story of “The Loophole.”

 

 

*    * *    * *

 

 

[ARCHIVAL: Crowd at Tokyo Dome

 

ARCHIVAL: Male Japanese Broadcaster.]

 

ROB DIBBLE: Every guy that came up to the plate when I’m on the mound it would get so noisy and then the whole stadium would kind of rise up and everybody would get into it.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Rob Dibble thought he’d encountered raucous baseball fans before — that was until he played at the Tokyo Dome.

 

ROB DIBBLE: They would have different noisemakers and tambourines, trumpets and it was so incredibly loud.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: It was November 2nd, 1990. Just two weeks before, Dibble, a hard-throwing reliever, had helped the Cincinnati Reds win the World Series. Now he found himself pitching in a very different kind of World Series.

 

[ARCHIVAL: Male Japanese broadcaster.]

 

ROB DIBBLE: It was an All-Star tour. So, we played eight games against the Japanese All-Stars.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: And the Japanese players blew him away.

 

ROB DIBBLE: Now, I was very impressed by how big, strong, how fast these guys were, how hard most of the guys threw.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Dibble noticed that one guy threw harder than the rest.

 

[JAPAN VS USA BASEBALL NOVEMBER 2nd, 1990,

 

 

WAYNE GRACZYK: Nomo, the rookie phenom from the Kintetsu Buffaloes here pitching to Julio Franco.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Hideo Nomo was a 22-year old rookie who led the Japanese league in strikeouts, and was both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. The Americans would soon learn why.

 

[ARCHIVAL: Male Japanese broadcaster.]

 

ROB DIBBLE: I mean, you know, whether it was Lenny Dykstra or Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds or any of the guys that were on the trip, they’re all talking in the dugout like, “Holy cow.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Up in the broadcast booth they were fantasizing about Nomo coming to America.

 

[JAPAN VS USA BASEBALL NOVEMBER 2nd, 1990,

 

ANNOUNCER: Oh we’d love to have him. I think he’d be a starter for us right now and do a terrific job.  I think they’d want him on the big club real quick.

 

ANNOUNCER 2: Well, I don’t think Kintetsu Buffaloes want to let him go.]

 

ROB DIBBLE: Randy Johnson was asked whether or not he thought Hideo Nomo had the talent to pitch in the major leagues. And he said, “Absolutely.” And I was like, “Listen with his stuff, that guy can pitch in any league on the planet.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Except… that wasn’t true. Nomo might have had the talent to go to America, but he didn’t have the freedom. Japanese teams had total control over a players’ destiny. And for decades, no player had the nerve to challenge the system.  

 

 

ANDREW MUSCATO:  Hideo Nomo never shied away from a challenge — Even as a kid.

 

ROBERT WHITING: Well he was a big guy, so he was always breaking up fights and protecting the smaller kids.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Robert Whiting is a historian who has lived in Japan for over fifty years and written several books on Japanese baseball.

 

ROBERT WHITING: I mean when you’re big you learn people don’t push you around.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: This is Nomo in a rare 1997 interview on Japanese television remembering his childhood in Osaka.

 

[NHK INTERVIEW 1997,

 

HIDEO NOMO: I grew up in a neighborhood with many factories.  After school, I would throw a baseball at the big wall at the factory. I tried to find a way to throw hard every day.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: To throw harder, Nomo came up with an unusual pitching delivery. He would twist his body, turning his back to hitters, and whip back around to launch the ball towards the batter.

 

ROBERT WHITING: He developed his corkscrew style of pitching when he’d play catch with his father.  He said he was just trying to impress his father. See how much his speed would increase with that kind of windup.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: By the time he turned twenty, Nomo was one of the country’s most exciting young players.

 

SHIGETOSHI HASEGAWA: I think I pitched against Nomo like a two or three times.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Shigetoshi Hasegawa was a starting pitcher on a rival club.

 

SHIGETOSHI HASEGAWA: Honestly I didn’t want to pitch against him. His ERA was kind of two-point some.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Competitors on the field, Nomo and Hasegawa became friends off of it. They soon discovered they shared the same goal –– to pitch in the Major Leagues.

 

SHIGETOSHI HASEGAWA: We are talking about all the time, someday we’re going to get on to the mound. That time- that was a ’90- nobody thinking about it. It was just a dream. Of course teammates said, “Don’t be ridiculous or something,  you’re not gonna make it.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: One reason this dream seemed so ridiculous was because Nomo, Hasegawa, and their fellow players all knew the story of Masanori Murakami.

 

[NEWSREEL: TOKYO GIANTS AT SPRING TRAINING,

 

ANNOUNCER: The Tokyo Giants pay a visit for a Preseason Exhibition Contest.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Back in the 1960s teams in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, or NPB for short, sent prospects to develop in the American minor leagues.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Murakami — a promising pitcher for the Nankai Hawks — was one of them. When Murakami was called up to the San Francisco Giants in September 1964 it was a dream come true.

 

MASANORI  MURAKAMI: Everyone on the team was gathered in the clubhouse and they said, “ Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: As the season wound down, San Francisco did what they could to keep this Japanese phenom stateside.

 

ROBERT WHITING:   And the Giants sent a check for ten thousand dollars to the Nankai Hawks.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Murakami’s team felt they had been double-crossed.

 

ROBERT WHITING: … and the Nankai Hawks front office went berserk.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: San Francisco was supposed to help the Hawks develop players — not poach them.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Murakami was dubbed a greedy traitor by the press and he eventually bowed to pressure, returning to Japan in 1966. His American dream was over — relegated to a footnote in baseball history.

 

ROBERT WHITING: To defy custom and tradition was a really difficult thing.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: When Murakami returned to Japan, the decision to leave America continued to haunt him. He recalls hearing the song ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ while out with a friend.  

 

MASANORI  MURAKAMI: A waitress at the bar was like, “Are you crying?”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: His friend offered to talk to the general manager to see if Murakami could go back to the U.S.

 

MASANORI  MURAKAMI: “No. I have made a promise.  But the truth is — I want to play in America.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Japanese players were already on an island, but after Murakami team owners built a wall between them and the Major Leagues. The free exchange of cultures and players was over.

 

ROBERT WHITING: The Japanese and Americans hammered out what they called the ‘Working Agreement’ in which both sides would keep their hands off of each other’s players and no Japanese went to the States again.

 

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: In the years after the 1990 All-Star Game against Rob Dibble and the other big leaguers, Hideo Nomo was still as dominant as ever, leading the league in wins three seasons in a row.   

 

[ARCHIVAL: Male Japanese Broadcaster.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: But in 1994 Nomo’s team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes, hired a new manager, Keishi Suzuki. Suzuki was a Hall of Fame pitcher — but also a real hard-ass.

 

[ARCHIVAL: Male Japanese Broadcaster.]

 

ROBERT WHITING: And his philosophy was — A  pitcher should pitch until his arm falls off and that the best way to cure a sore arm is to go out and throw more — So he figured if he could do it then everybody else could.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Suzuki represented an old-school Japanese coaching style that Nomo had always resisted.

 

[NHK INTERVIEW, 1997

 

HIDEO NOMO: Coaches were very strict. They put more emphasis on attitude and choice of words than what you do in practice.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Kozo Abe, is a longtime Tokyo Sports editor.

 

KOZO ABE: It’s Japanese traditional way of karate and the judo teacher says, “Do this way” and if you don’t do that teacher will get mad. That’s Japanese culture.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo’s obedience to Suzuki landed him on the disabled list for most of the season.

 

ROBERT WHITING: Nomo said his right arm hurt so much he had to drive his car with his left hand. So that animosity towards Suzuki was the start of it all.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo had had enough. He wanted out of Japanese baseball. The only question he had was — how?

 

ANDREW MUSCATO:  Around this time a young lawyer from California was in Tokyo on business.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: My name is Jean Afterman. I’m the senior vice president and assistant general manager of the New York Yankees.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: But back then, Jean was fresh out of law school, getting her first taste of Japanese baseball.

 

[ARCHIVAL: Crowd at Tokyo Dome.]

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: It was the Tokyo Dome, the place was packed. It’s like watching a Major League Baseball game only the atmosphere was… maybe better.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: She had been invited by one of her clients, a 36-year-old Japanese baseball agent named Don Nomura.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: Don, you know- he’s brash, he was young, he dressed in a very kind of hip fashion. He probably didn’t act very quote-unquote Japanese because he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: As they watched from the stands Jean marveled at the high quality of play.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: And I didn’t understand why there weren’t Japanese baseball players playing in the United States. And Don said to me, “Well you know, it’s interesting that you ask.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Don told Jean about Masanori Murakami and the 1967 working agreement. The one that prohibited professional Japanese players from coming to the United States.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: And being a fairly newly minted lawyer I said to him, “Well that doesn’t seem legal.” And he said, “I’ve been looking for a long time for a player who will challenge the system.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Don Nomura never had much use for the system. Or maybe it was the other way around.

 

DON NOMURA: When I was growing up I felt Japanese but people don’t treat me like Japanese, because I don’t look Japanese.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Thanks to his American father Don was a red-head — and it was tough being a mixed-race kid in Japan.

 

DON NOMURA: There was a lot of segregation, prejudices and especially when I spoke English. So I had a lot of fights growing up with the local kids.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Don’s rebel nature got him expelled from high school. By then his mother had married Katsuya Nomura, a Japanese Hall of Fame catcher who encouraged his stepson to play baseball. In the late ‘70s, Don signed a minor league contract with the Yakult Swallows, a team based in Tokyo.

 

ANDREW  MUSCATO: Briefly describe for us what your playing career was like.

 

DON NOMURA: Ah, crappy. Me being half-Japanese half-American I didn’t get along with many guys.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO:  Like Hideo Nomo, Don chafed at Japan’s rigid baseball culture. After a short playing career, he moved to Southern California where he became a sports agent.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Don learned about free agency, salary arbitration, collective bargaining — things that were commonplace in Major League Baseball, but barely existed in NPB.

 

DON NOMURA: In Japan once you’re in the club you’re basically locked in forever.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Don decided he would return home and go to bat for players that were being taken advantage of.

 

ANDREW  MUSCATO:  How common were baseball agents or player agents?

 

DON NOMURA: Nah, there was none in Japan.

 

ROBERT WHITING: Don Nomura was the first one. Agents were unheard of you know because that was a sign of greed on the part of the player that you need somebody to negotiate your contract. What are you supposed to do is take what the team offers.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Japanese players were tied to a draconian contract which — believe it or not — was just a translated version of a decades-old American contract. One that gave team owners almost complete control.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: As Don explained all this to Jean Afterman at the Tokyo Dome, he told her he was on a mission. To find a player with the guts to challenge the system.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: Don was saying the particular player had to have a certain kind of courage. Had to be able to withstand everything that would come. At the time there was a Japanese saying that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: It was only a matter of time before Don Nomura, the renegade agent, and Hideo Nomo, the frustrated pitcher found each other.  

 

DON NOMURA: I heard through the grapevine that he wanted to go to the States.  So we met in Tokyo in a coffee shop.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo wanted to learn all he could about Major League Baseball.

 

DON NOMURA:He asked me questions, “What’s it like in the major leagues? What kind of practice they do?”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Don worried that the longer Nomo stayed in Japan, the more he risked blowing out his arm.

 

DON NOMURA: One game I saw him pitch hundred ninety-two pitches and the team was winning  8 to 1 and he had like 13 strikeouts and 12 walks. They were in last place. He still had thrown a complete game.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo didn’t need much convincing.

 

DON NOMURA: He says, “Nomura-san I’m going to The States next year so please find the way to get there.” He’s very unlike Japanese was, he was very straightforward of what he said and what he wanted to do. He says, “Just find a way to get me over there.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Now it was up to Don to deliver. He roped in his lawyer Jean Afterman to help.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: Don and I did it in our off hours, like we had a day job, both of us. After 5 p.m. we worked on bringing Hideo Nomo to Major League Baseball.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: They started by reading the US-Japan Working Agreement. Don was surprised to discover that the language banning Japanese players from going to MLB only applied to active players. Don had a flash of insight – Nomo needed to retire.

 

DON NOMURA:  If he’s retired, he can probably play overseas. Maybe this is the loophole.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: he loophole was this big Swiss cheese hole that you drive a Mack truck through. And I remember the two of us thinking like it can’t be that easy.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: It wasn’t. Don and Jean still had to figure out how Nomo could retire early. They turned next to the Japanese players’ contract.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN:  We’re probably the only agents that read cover to cover and let me tell you that it’s tough reading.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN:  All right, all right! Here it is. Hold on, hold on, hold on.

 

(sound of rustling pages)

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: So article fifty-nine was a “voluntarily retired player” so if a player petitions the cancellation of his contract… in such a case the player is announced as a voluntarily retired player by the president of the league, and the voluntarily retired player becomes a free contract player… (fades out under Jean)

 

DON NOMURA: “Hideo, I think we found a way to take you to the United States.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo would have to be placed on a so-called voluntarily retired list.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: But getting on that list wasn’t as simple as the name suggested.

 

DON NOMURA: Voluntarily retired player doesn’t mean that, “Oh I want to retire so you’re on a voluntarily retired list.” They won’t let you retire until the club basically says “OK.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: The Kintetsu Buffaloes would have to consent to the retirement of their 26-year-old ace pitcher — which wasn’t gonna happen.  Unless… they were tricked into thinking it was their idea.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: I remember it would be the middle of the night and the phone would ring. I remember sitting on my bedroom floor talking with Don about what we were going to do.

 

DON NOMURA: So, my whole idea is to agitate the club.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Don told Nomo to demand an obscene amount of money in a guaranteed 6-year contract. If Nomo wanted to be an American ballplayer, he was going to have to act like one.

 

DON NOMURA: We were asking for six years, thirty million or five million, a year and that was unheard of then.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: In November 1994 Don and Nomo showed up at the Kintetsu Buffaloes offices in Osaka.

 

DON NOMURA: Maeda, the president He looks at me and he says, “Mr. Nomura what are you doing?” I said “I represent Hideo Nomo.” He says, “Well we don’t accept agents. Please leave.”

 

DON NOMURA: So Hideo goes, “If he has to leave I’m leaving too.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Yasuo Maeda, the team president, was not about to be pushed around by a player and his agent.

 

DON NOMURA: And the president just grabs his arm and says, “No, you can’t leave.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Then Nomo said…

 

DON NOMURA: “No, I’m leaving.”

 

DON NOMURA: So I told Hideo, “Why don’t you stay. I’ll step out of the room. Talk to him, and just keep in mind what we talked about.”

 

DON NOMURA: He came out in about an hour. He said, “I told him about the six-year contract and he wasn’t very happy.”

 

ROBERT WHITING: Maeda almost had a heart attack. He said, “Are you kidding me?” Says, “You’re just a kid. We don’t give out multiyear contracts and you can’t ask that kind of money. Besides you’ve got a sore arm.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Team executives were so flummoxed that they tabled the negotiations. In the meantime, they appealed to Katsuya Nomura, the Japanese baseball legend and Don’s stepfather, to intervene.

 

DON NOMURA: So my stepfather reprimanded me. He says you shouldn’t be doing this kind of stuff. I said, “Well this is my job and I’m trying to do the best for my client.”

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: You don’t see Don sweat. Don doesn’t sweat. He is cool, calm and collected… um, all the time. And that’s Hideo’s persona. You just don’t see the emotion. He is unflappable.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: About a month later, they returned to the team offices in Osaka with the same demands.

 

DON NOMURA: I said, “I bet my last coin that they’re going to get pissed off and say no, and if we keep agitating they’re going to threaten you, you know, basically retire you.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: To team executives, early retirement was a way to punish Nomo’s disrespect. They had no idea they were being played.

 

DON NOMURA: I’m sitting in the lobby and then I see him running out of the elevator and he says, “Nomura-san, we did it!” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “He got so pissed off.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: The Buffaloes executives had taken the bait. This time Don joined Nomo upstairs.

 

DON NOMURA: I go up with them there is like eight people. Eight versus one and they were basically ganging up, up on him and threatening him, and Hideo just said, “No I want six years, I want six years.” Then the president finally got mad and says, “If you don’t sign this right now we’re going to voluntary retire you.” And Hideo just said…. “Ok, I’ll retire.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO:  The two agitators had pulled it off.

 

DON NOMURA 2: [01:41:09] The club had a choice — either pay him thirty million or lose him, and they chose to lose him.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: It took thirty years for a Japanese ballplayer to do what Masanori Murakami couldn’t — or wouldn’t––act out of self-interest to realize his dream of playing in America.

 

[ARCHIVAL: HIDEO NOMO RETIREMENT PRESSER]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: A few weeks later Nomo officially announced that he had retired from NPB to pursue a career in Major League Baseball.

 

DON NOMURA: I mean very front page newspaper was Hideo Nomo retired. It’s like Michael Jordan retiring at his prime.

 

SHIGETOSHI HASEGAWA: I go wait a minute, am I dreaming?

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Shigetoshi Hasegawa was Nomo’s friend and a fellow pitcher who also wanted to play in America.

 

SHIGETOSHI HASEGAWA: He didn’t tell me about it, you know, and I got a little mad. I didn’t even realize Nomo was working with Don Nomura, I didn’t know, at all. And you know, he didn’t tell me Don Nomura found the loophole.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Was there anybody in the newsroom who thought that he was doing a good thing?

 

KOZO ABE: No, no one thought in that way. This is a dangerous gamble. Baseball society was shocked.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Kozo Abe, the Tokyo Sports editor, says many people blamed Don Nomura.

 

KOZO ABE: Agent was thought to be the very greedy people.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: They referred to Don in professional baseball as the black ship. The reference being, you know, the ship that sailed into Tokyo Bay and brought evil Western ways to Japan.

 

DON NOMURA: I got a lot of death threats, phone calls, say you’re tearing up professional baseball in Japan.

 

BOB WHITING: Sometimes I’m surprised he’s still alive.

 

DON NOMURA: I lost a lot of friends. Same with Hideo. He says, “You know when I was going through the process. There’s only a handful of guys would contact me. The rest of them would just disappear.”  

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Negotiating in bad faith so Nomo could bolt for America was considered dishonorable — traitorous even. Don and Nomo were used to feeling like outsiders in a country that valued conformity, but now they were truly on the outs.

 

DON NOMURA: I mean everybody just picked on him. “He’ll never make it to the big leagues.” “Nobody would sign him.” “He’s stabbing the Japanese community in the back.” We had media guys hiding in the shrubs.

 

DON NOMURA: I once asked Hideo “Are you sure? Are you ok?” And he was always tough. He always says, “This is the way it’s going to be. I’m going to the big leagues next year.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Just one problem…

 

[SPORTSCENTER,

ROBIN ROBERTS: Day one and counting of the baseball strike of ‘94.

 

CHARLEY STEINER: The National pastime is past tense.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: In August 1994 MLB ground to a halt, as players fought with team owners over revenue sharing and a proposed salary cap. The dispute continued throughout the winter threatening the start of the ‘95 season.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN:  Everybody hated him, greedy owners, greedy players. I heard the players actually brought the brunt of it more.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: But one of Nomo’s strengths was tuning out distractions and his focus was set on finding a new team. By February 1995 Don and Nomo were sitting in the office of LA Dodgers owner — Peter O’Malley.

 

PETER O’MALLEY: And we learned that he was on a tour. I think his next stop was Atlanta or maybe New York. And I said to myself, “I really don’t want him to go to see Steinbrenner or Ted Turner.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: O’Malley frequently visited Japan and had a deep appreciation of the culture.

 

DON NOMURA: What really got Hideo was Peter O’Malley himself. He says, “I like Peter. I want to play for the Dodgers.” That was the green light.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: On February 13, 1995 O’Malley stood at a podium at a hotel ballroom in LA’s Little Tokyo neighborhood.

 

[HIDEO NOMO DODGERS INTRODUCTORY PRESS CONFERENCE FEBRUARY 13, 1995,

 

Peter O’Malley: Many years Hideo Nomo has dreamed about pitching in the Major Leagues. I admire his courage, his commitment, his dedication and we’re excited that he has selected the Dodgers to play baseball in the United States. Today it is my great pleasure to warmly welcome Mr. Nomo. Hideo would you please come up here…

 

ARCHIVAL: Sounds of cameras and applause]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Wearing a Dodgers jersey over his shirt and tie, Nomo spoke to the press while Don served as an interpreter.  

 

[HIDEO NOMO DODGERS INTRODUCTORY PRESS CONFERENCE FEBRUARY 13, 1995,

 

HIDEO NOMO/INTERPRETER: Prior record is things of the past. I’m here to start from zero and I’m gonna give every challenge I can.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Finally, in April Commissioner Bud Selig announced an end to the longest work stoppage in Major League Baseball history.

 

[BUD SELIG PRESS CONFERENCE,

 

BUD SELIG The players are back, the game is back, and we are very happy about that.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: But After a canceled World Series and squabbling over millions, would the fans come back? That was the question on the minds of everyone in baseball. Except Hideo Nomo. His concern was preparing for the most important season of his career. All while finding his place on a Dodgers roaster full of international pitching talent.

 

DAVE WALLACE: We had a Mexican, a Dominican, an American, a Korean, and a Japanese.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Dodgers pitching coach Dave Wallace remembers a team meeting in spring training.

 

DAVE WALLACE: So one day I came out and I say, “Good morning, Buenos días, Ohayou gozaimasu” and “Annyeong  haseyo.” I say, “Hey guys that’s ‘Good morning’ in four languages. How am I doing?” You Know. But it was baseball and the Dodgers had the reputation of bringing cultures together.

 

[NHK INTERVIEW, 1997,  

 

HIDEO NOMO: I had a hard time when I needed to have a conversation, attend a press conference or do interviews. My English level was zero.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo told a reporter he didn’t come to America to speak English but to play baseball. On May 2nd, 1995 he finally got his chance.

 

[SPORTSCENTER,

 

KEITH OLBERMANN: And history in the making in San Francisco tomorrow. For the first time since 1965 when Masanori Murakami made his decision to leave the Giants and return home to pitch for the Nankai Hawks, a Japanese born player will appear in a Major League Baseball game.]  

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: So we’re sitting third base side and it was one of those beautiful clear San Francisco days.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Jean Afterman, who had invested untold hours helping Nomo get to the States, wasn’t entirely sure how Nomo would fare in his debut.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: I remember just being very nervous. Now I was born and raised in San Francisco. And I brought my whole family who are rabid Giants fans. I think I was sitting next to my mother I stood and I gave him a standing ovation. And I remember my mother grabbing my sleeve and saying, “Sit down! You’re embarrassing us!”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Jean may have been excited, but Japanese fans were full of conflicting emotions.

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS MAY 2nd 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: And, there is just a ton of photographers right behind home plate.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Despite their bitterness, they couldn’t help but pay attention to this moment. They had to see Nomo’s fate for themselves.  

 

 

MARGARET NARUMI: I heard from the Giants that they accredited two hundred Japanese just for that game. Two hundred.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: That afternoon, Margaret Narumi was outside the stadium working in a TV truck for Japanese broadcaster NHK.

 

MARGARET NARUMI: I said ‘Don’t miss a single moment!’ Let’s keep the cameras on him because this is history in the making.

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS MAY 2nd 1995 ,

 

ARCHIVAL: Japanese Male Broadcast on NHK.]

 

JEFF ENA: Honestly, growing up here I kind of developed this part of my brain thinking, “American players are just better.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Jeff Ena was a young Japanese-American who worked as an interpreter for the media. To him, Nomo’s arrival brought both a sense of pride and a sense of dread.

 

JEFF ENA: So, I really had zero expectations. I was kind of like I hope he doesn’t make a fool of himself.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Others in the Japanese media, like sports editor Kozo Abe, were poised to cover what they thought would be Hideo Nomo’s downfall.

 

KOZO ABE: It’s the first time that the Japanese players challenge the MLB after Murakami. So I thought, “He will fail.”

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS MAY 2nd 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: And we’re being told that it’s on at 4:30 in the morning in Japan.

 

ANNOUNCER #2:  And all of the Dodgers teammates of Hideo Nomo up on the top step, taking a look at this historical moment.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo went into his twisting windup and unleashed a fastball.

 

[ARCHIVAL: Ball hits mit.]

 

DON NOMURA: When he made that first pitch, and when the umpire called the first strike my blood froze basically.

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS MAY 2nd 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: Strike three called.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo struck out the first batter looking. But then pitched himself into trouble.

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS MAY 2nd 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: Ball four, bases are loaded for Royce Clayton.]

 

DAVE WALLACE: So I’m standing in the dugout I said, “I’ve got to go out and make a visit here.”

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS MAY 2nd 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER:…And that will bring out the Dodger pitching coach…Dave Wallace.]

 

DAVE WALLACE: ….I don’t know what to say. Because I didn’t have my little ‘cheat-sheet’ you know, to ask him anything in Japanese. So true story. I go jogging out to the mound at Candlestick. Here comes Mike Piazza who’s catching.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza.

 

MIKE PIAZZA: Dave and I looked at each other, because his interpreter wasn’t there, “Well, what do we do?”

 

DAVE WALLACE: ….I swear to God I don’t know why it happened but the only other language I knew was Spanish. So. My first reaction is, “Nomo, Nomo, ¿Cómo esta?” And to Nomo’s credit, he went, “Good” And he laughed.  

 

MIKE PIAZZA: It was kind of a where the baseball language transcended any language that we speak as humans. He was a type of guy that he didn’t allow those difficulties really to affect him.

 

DAVE WALLACE: I said to Mike and him I said, “Look he’s having trouble throwing the ball over the plate. They’re going to be sittin’ first-pitch fastball here. Let’s throw him a split-finger first pitch — and he did.”

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS MAY 2nd 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: And he comes back with a strike, a big pitch for Nomo in that situation.]  

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Despite loading the bases, Nomo got out of the inning.

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS MAY 2nd 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: Swing and a miss! He struck him out!]  

 

FRED CLAIRE: There was nothing jittery about Hideo, there was, “I got this.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Dodgers General Manager Fred Claire.

 

FRED CLAIRE: And you say, “Wow this guy’s got the chance to be something here.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo would pitch well over his first five starts but fail to record a decision in any of them.

 

DAVE WALLACE: I remember kidding about that. “Hey man when are you going to win a game? You know or lose one or do something! You know, get a decision.”

 

[METS AT DODGERS JUNE 2nd 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: 1-2 pitch, hard hit ball to the right side, DeShields makes the play. Gets him at first! Fine play by Delino DeShields]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: A month after his Major League debut, Hideo Nomo finally recorded his first win on June 2nd when the Dodgers beat the New York Mets 2-1.  

 

 

[METS AT DODGERS JUNE 2nd 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: Hideo Nomo gets his first victory here in the United States in Major League Baseball.]

 

DON NOMURA: When he got his first win, I think the whole thing just changed. And then it became more of a fairy tale.

 

[DODGERS AT ROCKIES SEPTEMBER 17th, 1996,

 

ANNOUNCER: Here’s the pitch. He strikes him out! Whoa!

 

ANNOUNCER 2: Nomo with eleven strikeouts.  

 

EXPOS AT DODGERS JUNE 7th, 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: Hideo wins his second of the year!]

 

JACOB BRUMFIELD: Man, this guys got good stuff

 

DODGERS AT ROCKIES SEPTEMBER 17th, 1996,

 

ANNOUNCER: The way Nomo’s been going lately, he is mighty tough.]

 

[GIANTS AT DODGERS JUNE 24th, 1995,

 

ANNOUNCER: And Nomo has now retired 13 consecutive.]

 

 

FRED CLAIRE: I can recall it. When he would pitch, the individual cameras lighting up the stadium.

 

[DODGERS AT ROCKIES SEPTEMBER 17th, 1996,

 

ANNOUNCER: All eyes and all cameras are focused on Hideo Nomo.]

 

 

[SPORTSCENTER,

 

CHARLEY STEINER: About once a decade a pitching phenom makes his mark on Major League baseball. Now in the ‘90s it’s Nomo whose windup, delivery and the finished product is turning heads on both sides of the Pacific.]  

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: In the month of June Nomo won six games in a row. During that stretch, he led the National League in strikeouts and broke Dodger pitching records previously held by Sandy Koufax. The same corkscrew motion that Nomo developed to impress his father was now slaying the best hitters in the world.

 

PETER  O’MALLEY: The press used the word “tornado,” the way he twisted and turned…

 

DAVE WALLACE: Damn that’s funky isn’t it?

 

JEFF ENA: He just basically turned his back to home plate.

 

[AL MARTIN: After he puts the ball behind his back you really don’t see it again until it’s halfway on you.]

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: Almost like a slow snake coiling and then… (sound effect) the ball was already at the plate.

 

[JIM LEYLAND: Well, my hitters were comin’ back saying they couldn’t find the ball.

 

AL MARTIN: Hittin’ looked real easy when you’re watching him on videotape, when you get in the box…And all the sudden was there. You realize why guys are looking pretty bad.

 

ANNOUNCER: Nomo threw it right by him, the tornado.]

 

DON NOMURA: The tornado!

 

FRED CLAIRE: Tornado!

 

ROBERT WHITING: Tornado!

 

MARGARET NARUMI: The tornado!

 

JEFF ENA: That was the first thing I noticed about him. Growing up in that time. I think every little leaguer probably like did the Nomo, you know?

 

[ARCHIVAL: Crowd chanting “Nomo!! Nomo!! Nomo!!]

 

JEFF: I remember going to games I  would hear people singing that song that Nomo Mr. Nice Guy.

 

[ANNOUNCER: They are roaring here at Dodger Stadium.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: As Nomomania took off, Jeff Ena noticed the Japanese media suddenly changed their tune.

 

JEFF ENA: Initially they were all making all these excuses. They would say stuff like, “The ball size and the seam size is a little different so that’s why his fork is actually stronger here.” And then after a while they’re like, “We ran out of shit to say so we’re just going to  give him his credit.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Kozo Abe, the Tokyo newspaper editor, and many others had to eat their words.

 

KOZO ABE: Oh I’m sorry, we were mistaken. Once he starts winning. OK. His intention was correct. He was good and and all that sudden he’s a national hero.

 

ROBERT WHITING: What surprised me was how quickly it turned around. It was just like an instant. Entire mood of the nation just changed and they talked about the idea of how Japan has been validated as a country.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: On the other side of the world, Hideo Nomo was must-see TV.

 

[ANNOUNCER: Well they are loving it in Japan… that’s nine strikeouts.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Baseball historian and long time Tokyo resident Robert Whiting remembers watching Nomo on giant outdoor screens.  

 

ROBERT WHITING: At all these hubs around the city. People just stop. Look at that, “My God that’s a Japanese pitcher on the mound in the major leagues. With the Dodgers uniform and he’s striking out Barry Bonds. My god, can you believe it!”

 

[ABC NEWS,

 

PETER JENNINGS: Finally this evening, why Los Angeles Dodgers fans have been overheard hollering “sanshin.”  It’s the Japanese word for strikeout, and the man they’ve been shouting at is currently leading the National League in sanshin, and was named today as the National League starting pitcher for tomorrow night’s All-Star Game. Here’s a Japanese import nobody’s arguing about.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Five years after impressing Randy Johnson in the US-Japan All-Star tour Nomo was now facing him in the MLB All-Star game.

 

DON NOMURA: I got a call from the Foreign Ministry and says, “Our Prime Minister wants to congratulate Mr. Hideo will he be available on the phone?” So I talked to Hideo and he says, “I don’t want to talk to him. I called the Foreign Minister back and I said, “He does not want to talk to the Prime Minister.” He says, “Why? He just don’t want to, because when he left Japan you know, they talked so much negative and now they’re, you know kissing his ass.”

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo was still sore about how he had been treated back home as he told ESPN’s Roy Firestone at the time.

 

[SPORTSCENTER,

 

ROY FIRESTONE: American baseball is one word.

 

NOMO: Fun.

 

ROY FIRESTONE: Japanese baseball? One word.

 

NOMO: It’s hard to say. It’s difficult to express.

 

ROY FIRESTONE: Will you ever go back to Japan- to play again?

NOMO: I think that’s the wrong question for me because I have tried to come to America for a long time to play baseball, and now I am playing so why think about going back to Japan right now?]

 

[SPORTSCENTER,

 

LINDA COHN:Hideo Nomo the savior of baseball this year?]

 

PETER GAMMONS: Well he is. He’s absolutely the story thus far. This guy has brought a huge part of the American audience into baseball.]

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: My view is that Hideo Nomo saved baseball in the United States. Fans were disinterested, disenchanted and really frankly pissed off at players. And here comes Hideo Nomo you know with that tornado wind-up and everything was great about him.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Back in May, only 16,000 people showed up to Candlestick for Nomo’s debut. But when he and the Dodgers returned on August 5 the stadium was packed with over 43,000 fans.

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS, AUGUST 5, 1995,

 

AL MICHAELS: Here we go with flash bulbs popping all over the stadium. Super Bowl type of atmosphere.]

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: It was a magical night for many reasons. The year before the Giants had intended to honor Masanori Murakami — the accidental pioneer of Japanese baseball — on the 30th anniversary of his major league debut. But the celebration had been postponed due to the strike. In a strange twist of fate, the makeup date had been rescheduled for this night, August 5th, 1995.

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS, AUGUST 5, 1995,

 

AL MICHAELS: And of all things the Dodgers wind up with Hideo Nomo on the roster and pitching tonight. Murakami was honored here before the game and it’s irony of ironies — Murakami pitched with the Giants 30 years ago. And then went back to Japan. You know, you wonder about Hideo Nomo…]  

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: But what the broadcasters failed to mention was why Murakami went back. He left MLB not because he lacked talent but out of a deep sense of cultural obedience. Amid the elation of Nomomania, few realized what had transpired for a Japanese player to make it back to the Majors all those years later.

 

ROBERT WHITING: People really admire, people who stand up and defy the system. Not in Japan — that’s not admired at all. And so Americans don’t really understand how difficult it was for them to do it. Just like the hate of the entire nation was coming down upon these people. And it really took a lot of guts, courage, heart to withstand all that.

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS, AUGUST 5, 1995,

 

AL MICHAELS: Right there. Called strike three.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Hideo Nomo would go on to lead the league in strikeouts, win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, and help the Dodgers win the Division.

 

[DODGERS AT GIANTS, AUGUST 5, 1995,

 

AL MICHAELS: I mean in the year when baseball needs all the help it can conceivably get. They should thank their lucky stars for Hideo Nomo.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo ultimately tossed two no-hitters in a successful 13-year career.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: But his real legacy can be seen in all that came after.

 

SHIGETOSHI HASEGAWA: After Nomo wait a minute,  they start thinking maybe I can go to the United States too.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Nomo’s friendly rival, fulfilled his dreams of pitching in the Major Leagues too and went on to be an All-Star for the Seattle Mariners.

 

SHIGETOSHI HASEGAWA:  So that’s because of Nomo.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: With more players utilizing the ‘loophole’, Japanese baseball owners finally agreed to give their players more freedom. In 2000 a transfer market was established for MLB clubs to bid for the rights to professional Japanese players.

 

JEAN AFTERMAN: You know, you need to make change in a system that’s unjust or unfair.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Players no longer endure the intense criticism Nomo faced all those years ago. Today, fans expect their team’s best players to someday represent Japan and prove themselves in Major League Baseball.  

 

MIKE PIAZZA: Hideo Nomo he’s a guy really that is a pioneer.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: Nomo’s former teammate Mike Piazza.  

 

MIKE PIAZZA: He was the right guy at the right time to deal with the pressures and expectations.

 

ANDREW MUSCATO: But Nomo couldn’t have done without Don Nomura.

 

DON NOMURA: He trusted me and we came through and I don’t want to say this but maybe the doors were closed if he didn’t succeed. And his success really paved, paved the way for other Japanese players.

 

[ARCHIVAL MONTAGE,

 

ANNOUNCER: And Ichiro given a standing ovation.

 

ANNOUNCER: And here’s Daisuke Matsuzaka.

 

ANNOUNCER: Strike out number eight for Hideki Irabu.

 

ANNOUNCER: A grand slam for Hideki Matsui!

 

ANNOUNCER: Strike three called, heck of a way to finish the night off for Yu Darvish.  

 

ANNOUNCER: Tanaka sneaks in a 95 mph fastball.

 

ANNOUNCER: Gone! Big fly Ohtani san!]  

 

 

Credits

The Loophole

 

This Episode was created in partnership with Makuhari Media.

 

Jody Avirgan, Host, Senior Producer and Series Editor

Erin Leyden, ESPN Films Senior Producer and Series Editor

Andrew Muscato, Reporter and Producer

Derek John, Senior Producer and Sound Designer

Ryan Nantell, Producer and Editing Support

Mitra Kaboli, Audio Engineering

Vin D’Anton, Associate Producer

Taylor Barfield, Production Assistant

Sean Mercer, Production Assistant

 

30 for 30 Podcasts

Julia Lowrie Henderson, Producer

Andrew Mambo, Producer

Keith Romer, Producer

 

Makuhari Media

Bobby Valentine, Executive Producer

Doug Lorentz, Executive Producer

Ravi Singh, Executive Producer

 

ESPN Films

Connor Schell, Executive Producer

Libby Geist, Executive Producer

Rob King, Executive Producer

Adam Neuhaus, Director of Development.

Jenna Anthony, Associate Director of Development

Deirdre Fenton, Producer

Tom Picard, Director, Production Management

Catherine Sankey, Production Manager

María Delgado, Production Manager

Jennifer Thorpe, Production Manager

Louise Argianas, Director of Footage Licensing

Alex Bohen, Development Production   

Paul Williard, Associate Producer

Eve Wulf, Production Assistant

 

ESPN Audio

Traug Keller, Senior Vice President

Tom Ricks, Vice President, Audio Digital Strategy & Marketing

Megan Judge, Director, Audio Distribution & Marketing

Pete Gianesini, Senior Director, Audio Production

Ryan Granner, Director, Digital Audio Operations

Devon McGowan, Senior Marketing Manager

Elizabeth Feirman, Senior Manager, Event Marketing

Ryan Hurley, Program Director, ESPN New York

RJ Santillo, Associate Producer, ESPN New York

Raymond Deenihan, Producer, ESPN New York

Rodney Belizaire, Chief Engineer, ESPN New York

 

Additional Production Support

Fred Katayama, Adam Moriwaki, Shun Nakasone, Kate McAuliffe, Roger Jackson, Jason Helig, Tony Chow, Justin McCraw, Linda Tran-Tutovan, Mitchell Clements, and Laura Hernández.

 

Special Thanks

Steve Brener, Acey Kohrogi, Tommy Lasorda, Michael Lerch, Hidekazu Mitsuyama, Masayuki Okumura, and Koji Takaishi.


30 for 30 Podcasts theme music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the Song Exploder podcast.