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For me, there’s probably no mo’ poignant a player in baseball than Hideo Nomo, who signed a minor league contract with the Kansas City Royals Friday. The 39 year-old pitcher is attempting an MLB comeback after being out of the bigs for three years.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles through both of Nomo’s stints with the Dodgers. The first one, beginning in 1995, was magical. I wasn’t really a baseball fan then, and I never saw him play at Dodger Stadium during that period, which I regret. But I remember, however, being shocked and captivated by the fact that, in America, 50,000 people in a major league ballpark would chant a Japanese dude’s name over and over like it was a sacred mantra. As a rookie, Nomo dominated, leading the league in strikeouts, starting the All-Star game, and winning National League Rookie of the Year. Nomo-mania infected everyone, even people like me, who mistakenly thought baseball was boring. Nobody was in the local news more except for O.J. Simpson.
The next year, he pitched a no-hitter at Coors Field, a feat never duplicated in that batter-friendly, mile-high park, and Nike named a shoe after him. But then things started going south. His delivery became, pardon the expression, less inscrutable to batters. He was traded after an abysmal start in 1998 and bounced around from one team to another (five total) and all up and down the minor league chain. When he returned to L.A. in 2002, I–now a budding baseball nut–like so many others, viewed this as both a homecoming and a shot at redemption. And his first season back, he was very good, showing flashes of the old Nomo, unreadable, untouchable. In his second, he was not so dominant. He gave up a lot of walks and hits when he was off, sometimes looking like a pitcher blindfolded. I remember more than a few times screaming his name, but not in a good way. No Nomo! No! No! Mooooooooooooo!
After shoulder surgery and racking up the worst ERA in baseball history for a pitcher with 15 decisions the next season, Nomo was bounced from L.A. a second time and became a baseball nomad once more, signing with three different teams before disappearing off the radar in 2005. In 2007, he played briefly in Venezuela.
Thirteen years after he threw open the doors for Japanese ballers to play here, Nomo starts over. I really want him to kick ass, although I can’t imagine how he will, given his age and history of injuries, unless he’s gotten his mitts on some of Roger Clemens’s juice. Sometimes I wonder what goes on inside Nomo’s head, how he wraps his mind around the high highs and low lows of his roller coaster career, whether or not he’s sad and depressed, and what he hopes to achieve in this comeback, but what I do know is that I’d like to hear 50,000 people cheer for him one more time, and I’m pretty sure he’d like that, too.