VERO BEACH, Fla. - Before Ichiro Suzuki became a sensation in the Major Leagues, he needed somebody to pave the way. Six years before Ichiro signed his historic contract with the Seattle Mariners, Hideo Nomo became the first Japanese player to jump full-time to the Major Leagues when he signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers on February 13, 1995.
While Major League teams have needed to pay Japanese teams a fee in order to negotiate with Ichiro and other Japanese stars, the Dodgers needed no such fee to sign Nomo. He instead took advantage of a loophole in his contract allowing a player who retired the right to sign with any team. After retiring from his Japanese league team, he was free to join the Dodgers.
What came next was a surprise to everybody. Nomo was followed everywhere by the Japanese media. His starts were broadcast live in the early morning in Japan. The Dodgers became an international sensation, all because they signed the man with the strange, corkscrewing windup.
In a way, Nomo's beginning with the Dodgers mirrored that of Fernando Valenzuela's in 1981. Both were pitchers from a foreign country who used an unusual windup and devastating stuff to dominate hitters in their rookie years. To continue with the comparision, both Nomo and Valenzuela starred in seasons immediately after lengthy strikes, allowing for a new story line to distract fans from the still-fresh labor unrest.
Though Nomo's success in America didn't mirror his success in Japan, he still had his moments. He became the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter in both the American and National leagues, and he is still the only Japanese pitcher to throw one in America. He won the 1995 Rookie of the Year and started that summer's All-Star Game. More importantly, his success made it possible for other Japanese players to dream of starring in America, opening the door for players like Ichiro to follow in his footsteps.
February 13, 1983: INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Really, I'm just posting this as an excuse to link to Marvin Gaye's National Anthem before the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Pure gold.