Path of ‘The Tornado’

Hideo Nomo, who blazed a trail for Asian ballplayers, debuts on BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot

December 03, 2013
2014 Hall of Fame candidate Hideo Nomo. (Brad Mangin/NBHOF Library)

He was a national overnight sensation, a flash of brilliance when baseball needed it the most.

Coming off the devastating labor dispute that prematurely ended the 1994 season, baseball had to give the fans a reason to cheer. And before Cal Ripken Jr. ignited the celebration of his record-setting streak in September of 1995, there was Hideo Nomo – electrifying fans across the nation and across the Pacific Ocean.

And it was hardly a one-season phenomenon – because the steady stream of talented Asian players now arriving in the big leagues can be directly traced to the splash Nomo made in the spring of 1995.

Nomo debuts on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot this fall – the first Japanese native to appear on the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame ballot. Nomo is one of 36 players on the 2014 BBWAA ballot for the Class of 2014.

BBWAA members who have at least 10 years of tenure with the organization can vote in the election, and the results will be announced Jan. 8. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all BBWAA votes cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2014. The Induction Ceremony will be held July 27 in Cooperstown.

Born Aug. 31, 1968 in Osaka, Japan, Nomo quickly established himself as a pro prospect in high school. By the age of 21, Nomo was pitching for the Japan Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes in his hometown. Nomo won at least 17 games in each of his first four seasons with the Buffaloes, but began experiencing arm problems in his fifth season due to heavy workloads. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Nomo possessed a 95-plus mph fastball and a devastating forkball, but was often asked to throw more than 140 pitchers per start.

Nomo asked for a trade at the end of the 1994 season, but when none could be arranged he explored the possibility of playing in the big leagues. Until that time, the only Japanese player to appear in the majors was Masanori Murakami, who pitched for the Giants in 1964 and 1965 before returning to play baseball in Japan. But Nomo and his agent Don Nomura negotiated with several teams before the Dodgers offered Nomo a $2 million bonus.

“The worst that could have happened (was) that I didn’t make it,” Nomo said. “Is that so bad? Is that something to be ashamed about? I could have handled failure.” 

Nomo joined the Dodgers in Spring Training and slowly recovered from the tendinitis in his right arm. After one minor league start, Nomo was summoned to the majors – where he debuted on May 2, 1995 with five innings of shutout ball against the Giants – allowing just one hit while striking out seven. 

Nomo fanned 14 batters against the Pirates in his fourth appearance, then reached double figures in Ks again in five out of six starts through June and July. By this point, Nomo-mania had gripped the baseball world – and Nomo was named the National League’s starting pitcher at the 1995 All-Star Game. 

Thousands of fans in Japan watched that game – and most others that Nomo started – on huge outdoor screens in Tokyo during the early morning hours. More than 80 members of the Japanese media followed Nomo throughout his career as the pitcher known as “The Tornado” firmly established that Japanese players could succeed in the big leagues. 

His corkscrew-like delivery and stoic demeanor carved out a unique niche for Nomo, who finished the 1995 season with a 13-6 record and a 2.54 earned-run average to go with a league-leading 236 strikeouts. He was named the NL’s Rookie of the Year and finished fourth in the league’s Cy Young Award voting. 

“Nomo might have been the best thing that happened to baseball this year,” said Commissioner Bud Selig in 1995. “The timing couldn’t have been better.” 

In 1996, Nomo went 16-11 with a 3.19 ERA, striking out 234 batters and finishing fourth in the Cy Young Award vote. He also threw his first of two career no-hitters that season, blanking the Rockies on Sept. 17. 

Nomo was 14-12 in 1997, but started slowly in 1998 with a 2-7 record and 5.05 ERA through his first 12 appearances. He requested a trade and was sent to the Mets on June 4, 1998 with Brad Clontz in exchange for pitchers Greg McMichael and Dave Mlicki. 

Nomo finished the 1998 season with a 6-12 record and 5.05 ERA, but rebounded to go 12-8 in 1999 after hooking on with the Brewers in late April. He went 8-12 with the Tigers in 2000, then experienced a career rebirth in 2001 when he was 13-10 with a league-leading 220 strikeouts with the Red Sox. He pitched his second career no-hitter that year against the Orioles on April 4 – the earliest calendar date for a no-hitter in big league history. 

Nomo returned to the Dodgers in 2002, winning 16 games apiece in 2002 and 2003 while logging more than 218 innings in each season. But he won just nine total games in 2004 and 2005 with the Dodgers and Devil Rays, and did not pitch again in the big leagues until 2008, when he made three appearances with the Royals before retiring. 

His final totals: A record of 123-109 with a 4.24 ERA and 1,918 strikeouts in 1,976.1 innings. In his first three seasons with the Dodgers, Nomo was 43-29 and averaged 234 strikeouts per year. In 1997, he became the fastest pitcher in big league history to record 500 career strikeouts, doing so in 444.2 innings. 

Year Age Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO
1995 26 LAD 13 6 .684 2.54 28 28 0 4 3 191.1 124 63 54 14 78 236
1996 27 LAD 16 11 .593 3.19 33 33 0 3 2 228.1 180 93 81 23 85 234
1997 28 LAD 14 12 .538 4.25 33 33 0 1 0 207.1 193 104 98 23 92 233
1998 29 TOT 6 12 .333 4.92 29 28 0 3 0 157.1 130 88 86 19 94 167
1998 29 LAD 2 7 .222 5.05 12 12 0 2 0 67.2 57 39 38 8 38 73
1998 29 NYM 4 5 .444 4.82 17 16 0 1 0 89.2 73 49 48 11 56 94
1999 30 MIL 12 8 .600 4.54 28 28 0 0 0 176.1 173 96 89 27 78 161
2000 31 DET 8 12 .400 4.74 32 31 0 1 0 190.0 191 102 100 31 89 181
2001 32 BOS 13 10 .565 4.50 33 33 0 2 2 198.0 171 105 99 26 96 220
2002 33 LAD 16 6 .727 3.39 34 34 0 0 0 220.1 189 92 83 26 101 193
2003 34 LAD 16 13 .552 3.09 33 33 0 2 2 218.1 175 82 75 24 98 177
2004 35 LAD 4 11 .267 8.25 18 18 0 0 0 84.0 105 77 77 19 42 54
2005 36 TBD 5 8 .385 7.24 19 19 0 0 0 100.2 127 82 81 16 51 59
2008 39 KCR 0 0 18.69 3 0 2 0 0 4.1 10 9 9 3 4 3
12 Yrs 123 109 .530 4.24 323 318 2 16 9 1976.1 1768 993 932 251 908 1918

Craig Muder is the director of communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum