The World Baseball Classic (WBC) ended with Japan’s victory. Shohei Otani played an active role, Nutbar, who qualified for the team because his mother is Japanese, became the catalyst for the team with his cheerful character, and the oldest player, Yu Darvish, became the spiritual pillar for the younger players playing in Japan.
It was Hideo Nomo (now Padres advisor, hereafter “Nomo”) who essentially paved the way for these three players to challenge the Major Leagues. On February 18, during the Samurai Japan camp in Miyazaki, Darvish finished his own pitching practice and ran up to Nomo, who was watching behind the net, to greet him. He exchanged a few words with Nomo, who was watching from behind the net.
On Nomo’s debut pitching day, another pitcher was scheduled to pitch.
After playing for the Kintetsu Buffaloes for five years, Nomo left the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) in 1995, and went on to play for the Dodgers and seven other teams, winning 123 games. His “Tornado Pitching Method,” in which he throws with a big twist of his body, was reported as “The Tornade” in the United States. However, it is not well known that Nomo’s debut appearance as a professional baseball player in 1990, his rookie year with Kintetsu, after being selected by eight teams in the Japanese draft, was unexpectedly moved up due to an infection contracted by another pitcher who was originally scheduled to pitch. The following is a look back at the events surrounding his debut, including the voices of those involved.
Although the COVID-19 crisis that began two years ago has begun to subside, there are no small number of people whose fates were changed by COVID-19. Thirty-four years ago, Nomo’s first pitching day was moved up due to another infection. Nomo’s first pitching day was April 10, 1990, against Seibu. But in fact, another pitcher was scheduled to pitch that day.
He said, “That was the day I was supposed to start, maybe two days before. I went to the hospital because I wasn’t feeling well, and they said, ‘It’s rubella.’ I think I was the first one in the pitching staff. I immediately contacted the manager (Akira Ohgi). So I went home to recuperate.”
Let’s take a look back at Kintetsu at that time. In 1988, two years before Nomo joined the team, Akira Ohgi (deceased) took over as manager. On October 19, in a doubleheader against Lotte, Kintetsu won the first game in the 9th inning, but the game ended in a 4-4 tie when time expired in the 10th overtime in the second game. The team would have won the championship if they had won this game, but “10.19,” the 130th game in which the team failed to win the championship, has been passed down through the generations as a tragedy.
The following year, the ’89 season. Kintetsu won the league championship for the first time in nine years, thanks to the tragedy of 10.19. In addition to the traditional “Itemae” batting lineup, a strong pitching staff was formed, including Hideyuki Awano (current Giants coach) as the left-handed ace, Kazuyoshi Ono, and right-handers Shintaro Yamazaki (mentioned earlier), Rito Yoshii (current Lotte manager), and Tetsuro Kato. Then, at the draft meeting held in the off-season of that year, manager Ohgi drew Nomo in the remaining lots.
Nomo, the number one immediate right fielder of that year, joined the winning team, and Hiroo Ishii (now a member of the House of Councilors) from Prince Hotel joined the team as a hitter. The team was highly rated in the off-season, and Kintetsu was expected to open the 1990 season as the top favorite to win the championship again.
However, things did not go according to plan, as is typical of human sports.
In the open games after the camp, Nomo, who was supposed to be the centerpiece of the rookie lineup, repeatedly gave up runs on long balls when he pitched. On March 18, he made his first start against Hiroshima at the same Nissay Stadium, but he was ineffective, giving up a two-run homer to Takehiko Kobayakawa (now a baseball critic), and in five games he had a 5.00 earned-run average. Manager Ohgi once lamented to the press about Nomo’s lack of results, saying, “It may be difficult to use him in the rotation.
Shortly after the season opener, the team was plagued by infectious diseases. Rubella spread through the team. The disease is highly contagious, causing high fevers in some cases, and even the strongest professional baseball players cannot easily fight it off. It is a viral infection that, like corona, requires several days of home care.
On April 8, Kintetsu opened the season at Heiwadai Stadium in Fukuoka Prefecture, and their left-handed ace, Awano, threw a complete game against the Daiei, giving up eight runs in five innings. The game was later won thanks to an inspired batting lineup, but from the next game, Kintetsu suffered its ninth consecutive loss, falling far behind in the opening inning.
Yamazaki was scheduled to start on April 10 against Seibu at Fujiidera Stadium. It was the first game of a three-game series and the home field opener. Manager Ohgi considered Seibu, a perennial contender for the championship every year, to be his biggest rival at this point in the season. For the first game of the season against this archrival, Yamazaki, the second best starting pitcher after Awano, was selected, but two days before the game, the scenario collapsed.
So, who should we have pitch in his place? Ono, a left fielder who had contributed to the winning of the previous year’s championship and played in the Japan Series against the Giants, and Kato, a right fielder, were out of the team due to elbow and shoulder injuries.
I said, “All right, let’s go with Nomo. I’ll go with Nomo.
Manager Ohgi decided to go with Nomo, and told the press, “Nomo will start on April 10 against Seibu. Nomo will start! Nomo will be the starter. At that time, only Sunday’s starting pitcher was allowed to make a “preliminary start. It is no exaggeration to say that the rubella epidemic that broke out in the pitching staff, starting with Yamazaki, helped manager Ohgi decide on the day Nomo would pitch in his debut game.
There were no results from the open games to the official games.
So when was Nomo’s originally scheduled debut pitching day? According to Yamazaki, “I remember that he pitched on the day I was scheduled to pitch, but I didn’t know that (Nomo’s debut pitching day). Osamu Sasaki, one of the pitchers in the rotation who had been a winning pitcher in the season opener against Daiei, but who, like Yamazaki, had to delay his first start of the season because of the rubella, also replied, “I don’t know when Nomo was scheduled to pitch for the first time.
In his debut appearance on April 10 against Seibu, Nomo gave up five runs in six innings, starting a nine-game losing streak, and in his second appearance against the Orix on April 18, he gave up seven runs, including his first professional home run to Hiromitsu Kadota (deceased), who had announced that he would hit his first home run off of Nomo. The losing streak came to an end on January 24 against Nippon Ham, but Nomo had lost two of nine in a row. Even after the start of the official season, the results were not good.
What did his rivals for the starting lineup think of Nomo’s ability? Sasaki, who was the starter in a generally poor Kintetsu lineup that year and won eight games, looks back on those days.
The moment we first played catch, I knew something was different. When I receive a ball, I catch it while subconsciously predicting the position of the ball based on my experience, but the position of the ball was different from my prediction. The ball came as thrown without any drop in power or velocity. Only one of them had a different dimension.”
In other words, although he had been hit in the open games and the results had not been good, his ability as seen by the pros was still exceptional.
The veil was finally lifted on April 29, 1990, in his third start against the Orix. He recorded 17 strikeouts in one game, tying the Japanese record at the time. He won 18 games that year, and took the first step toward winning the “Four Crowns of Pitching”: most wins, best defensive record, most strikeouts, and highest winning percentage. But if Nomo had not made his debut on April 10 against Seibu, if the rotation had not been disrupted by the rubella epidemic, or if he had not pitched a great game against the Orix on April 29, which was also manager Ohgi’s 55th birthday, he might not have been able to do so. Sasaki continued in a more serious tone.
I don’t know what manager Ohgi told the press and others around him, but he never said he would not use Nomo. If he had done so, I would have thought, ‘Are we going to win? Nowadays, every team has several pitchers who can throw 150 km/h, but at that time, Nomo was the only pitcher of his caliber in the Japanese baseball world. He was the one and only.
Sasaki’s opinion was not in the majority until Nomo’s first win on April 29. It was a coincidence that his first pitching appearance was moved up and that it was against the Orix, who made a strong impression on him when he won for the first time. Whether or not he can turn this coincidence into a good thing is up to him. Nomo, a pioneer who served as a bridge between Japan and the U.S. to challenge Major League Baseball, was a “man with talent” from the time of his debut. (Titles omitted in the text)
Reporting and writing： Toshinori Tanikawa
Former Daily Sports reporter, editorial board member of Jiji Press