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Thursday, May 3
Nomo's errant pitch creates an international stir

By Jim Caple

SEATTLE --Boy, wouldn't you have loved to have been writing back-page headlines for a Japanese tabloid last night?




Ichiro-mania Leads to Pitch-in-Back Disease!

No Mo Mr. Nice Guy!

And, of course, In Humble Offering of Mutual Peace and Harmony, Nomo-san Respectfully Backs Ichiro-San Off the Plate.

What a thing. The two men responsible for their own international manias met for the first time this season Wednesday and the event became literally breathtaking when Hideo Nomo drilled Ichiro Suzuki right on the numbers in the fifth inning of the Mariners 5-1 victory over the Red Sox.

After retiring Ichiro on a groundout and a flyout earlier in the game, Nomo nailed the Seattle right fielder in the back in his third at-bat, dropping Ichiro to his knees and out of breath. While the 40,170 fans booed and only slightly fewer Japanese correspondents received phone calls from their editors, Ichiro got up and took first base after a brief examination from the Mariners trainer.

"I never imagined that the first pitcher who would hit me over here would be a Japanese pitcher," Ichiro said. "The spot I got hit was a really bad spot. I couldn't breathe so I had to pause until my breath came back."

I never imagined that the first pitcher who would hit me over here would be a Japanese pitcher.
Ichiro Suzuki, on getting drilled by Hideo Nomo in the fifth inning

In Japan, it is customary for pitchers to tip their caps as a sign that the pitch was unintentional but that's not the way it works here, of course. Over here, the tradition is for the pitcher to throw the splintered remains of the bat at the batter as he runs to first.

There was none of that, however. Ichiro did not charge the mound nor glare at the pitcher. There were no warnings, no angry words and no one suggested that there was anything remotely sinister involved. After all, it was a 1-2 pitch in a game between first-place teams that was tied 1-1.

Seattle catcher Tom Lampkin did wonder what the reaction was in Japan, where the game, like almost all of Ichiro's, was broadcast live.

"I can imagine that was the start of civil war in Japan," Lampkin said. "Can you imagine what it was like when he hit Ichiro if they were watching the games in public? You could have had one half of them being Ichiro people and the other half Nomo people and then they see that and go after each other."

While Lampkin imagined blood running through the streets of Tokyo, he and the other players were nonchalant about the much-anticipated game, showing more interest in the postgame spread than in the night's historic significance.

"I didn't think it was any different than any other game," Lampkin said, acknowledging, "there are probably 10 million people in Japan who thought differently."

That's because Nomo is the pitcher whose wildly successful 1995 migration to the major leagues inspired Ichiro to become the first Japanese position player in the majors. Both are off to exceptional starts – Nomo pitched a no-hitter his first game while Ichiro is batting .333 – and Japanese fans have been eagerly awaiting their first meeting.

Which came at a serendipitous time. This is golden week in Japan, when many workers are on vacation and able to watch the game at home or even fly the 4,800 miles to see the game in person and risk Seattle's mean streets (thieves robbed Ichiro's father of more than 500,000 Japanese yen when he visited last month, which is more than $4,000 U.S. – almost enough to cover coffee for two at Starbuck's in downtown Tokyo).

Miyuki and Takeshi Kamoshita arrived Wednesday morning, checked into their hotel and immediately bought tickets from the concierge. They are an example of what Ichiro has done for Japanese interest in major league baseball. Miyuki is a Tokyo Giants fan but cares more about how Ichiro is doing than her favorite team.

"Before going to a Giants game was special, very exciting; now it's just normal," she said. "Now the Japanese baseball games are very boring. The Mariners games are more important than the games in Japan."

The Mariners paid $13 million for the rights to Ichiro and another $14 million to sign him to a three-year contract, but they are getting their money's worth. While Tokyo has the highest population density on earth, on Wednesday the world's highest concentration of Japanese was packing the team souvenir store where Ichiro's name or likeness were on a staggering array of products: T-shirts, caps, bats, key chains, pins, cups and mousepads.

About the only thing you couldn't buy was a nude photo of Ichiro, though the rumored $2 million offer has given Seattleites a great new pickup line: "You got any naked photos of Ichiro?"

Once inside, Japanese fans hung a banner reading, "Show the soul of Japan," in kanji script from the right-field grandstand. A large Rising Sun banner hung in the right-field upper deck.

Obviously, this was a little more meaningful than the premiere of "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan."

"I looked forward to today's game," said Nomo, who took the loss when he allowed four runs in six innings. "I was looking forward to pitching against Ichiro and looking forward to winning."

After Nomo retired Ichiro on a first-inning grounder and a second-inning flyout, he faced the Seattle outfielder with two out and Carlos Guillen on second base in the fifth. He got ahead 1-2, then hit Ichiro with a pitch that registered 90 mph on the gun.

No doubt we'll see that baseball surface on an Internet auction site in the coming weeks.

Nomo said the pitch was a cut fastball that caught on his finger and went farther inside than he intended. Ichiro downplayed the pitch, saying that he doubts it was the first time a Japanese pitcher ever hit a major league hitter.

Nomo was out of the game by Ichiro's next at-bat (he tripled while fans chanted his name) but they'll meet again. The Mariners and Red Sox play again next week in Boston with Nomo and Tomo Ohka both likely to start during the series.

"Of course, I look forward to facing Nomo again," Ichiro said. "But at the same time I hope everyone can close this Japanese vs. Japanese talk and that thing will die down."

Good luck. I think the Japanese tabloids already are preparing the headlines: "Ichiro-Nomo II -- Smackdown in Beantown."

Box score line of the week
Kerry Wood struck out 14 batters April 27, his highest total since undergoing elbow surgery. Curt Schilling struck out 12, but allowed 13 hits April 25 (so was he unhittable or very hittable?). And Deion Sanders went 3-for-3 with a home run in his first game since September 1997.

This week's award, however, goes to Anaheim reliever Mike Holtz for his perplexing line April 29 against Toronto when the Angels brought the lefty in to face left-handed hitting catcher Darrin Fletcher. The Blue Jays countered by pinch-hitting right-handed hitting rookie Luis Lopez. Rather than face the lefty-righty matchup, the Angels had Holtz walk Lopez intentionally to get to Jeff Frye and brought in Shigetoshi Hasegawa to relieve Holtz. Because pitches in an intentional walk are not counted in official pitch totals, Holtz wound up with this perplexing line:

0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, zero pitches.

Lopez, by the way, was making his big-league debut. He is the first major leaguer to be intentionally walked in his debut since 1989. "It's kind of embarrassing when they walk a guy making his first major-league at-bat to get to me," Frye told reporters.

Lies, damn lies and statistics
The Yankees won 327 games during Deion Sanders' absence from the majors and in between Deion's home runs, Mark McGwire went deep 190 times. ... Deion is back in the majors because the Reds finally wised up and put Ken Griffey Jr. and his bad hamstring on the disabled list over the weekend. Junior is 0-for-12 this season and has exactly two hits and one RBI since Sept. 12 of last year. He hasn't been healthy enough to bat more than once in a game since Sept. 11. ... Pedro Martinez not only extended his record to 8-0 with a 0.89 ERA in eight games against the Mariners, Seattle has never even had a lead against him. ... New York's Alfonso Soriano finally walked April 29th, his first walk in more than a year and more than 100 at-bats. At his current pace of one walk per season, he will break Rickey Henderson's walk record in the year 4065. ... Fred McGriff homered in his 38th stadium April 29th, breaking a tie with McGwire for the most by a player.

From left field
The 1907 Giants forfeited their season opener when fans mobbed the field, then won 21 of their next 23 games. The hot start didn't get them anything -- the Cubs began the season 20-4 and finished 25½ games ahead of the third place Giants. On the other hand, the Dodgers began the 1955 season with a 10-game winning streak, lost a game, then won 11 more in a row and went on to win the World Series.

Here are the dozen teams, that like the Mariners this year, played their first 24 games at an .800 or better clip, and how they finished:

Year Team Start The skinny
1955 Dodgers 22-2 Won Brooklyn's only World Series
1907 Giants 21-3 Fourth place, 25½ games behind
1911 Tigers 21-3 Second place, 13½ games behind
1946 Red Sox 21-3 Won pennant, lost World Series
1902 Pirates 20-4 Won pennant (no World Series)
1907 Cubs 20-4 Won World Series
1977 Dodgers 20-4 Won pennant, lost World Series
1981 Athletics 20-4 Won AL West, lost in playoffs
1984 Tigers 20-4 Won Detroit's last World Series
1986 Mets 20-4 Won NL East by 21½ games, won World Series
1987 Brewers 20-4 Third place, seven games behind
2001 Mariners 20-4 Nine-game lead at end of April

Win Blake Stein's money
This week's category is: Of Course, Many Fans Thought They Voted For Pat Buchanan Instead.

Q. Who was the last rookie to be voted onto the All-Star team?

Power rankings
1. Mariners
Great April: 20-4 record and a double date with Angelina Jolie and her brother.
2. Barry Pepper
Uncanny performance but New York writers rooting for Thomas Jane to win Emmy.
3. Twins
Great April: Twins in first place and Minnesotans only had to shovel snow 19 times the entire month.
4. Deion Sanders
Next up: Rescue Lois Lane and prevent Lex Luthor from stealing California.
5. Dodgers
Next up for Kevin Malone: reunification bout with Hashim Rahman.
6. George W. Bush
Celebrates 100-day mark by opening up Pat Riley's hair for oil exploration.
7. Marie Bremont
World's oldest person turns 115, re-signs with Orioles.
8. Ken Griffey Jr.
Junior, shake hands with Wally Pipp.
9. Montreal
Expos sign English radio deal -- but if you play Dave Van Horne's HR call backwards, he says, "Yuoppi is dead."
10. Florida
Rays, Marlins request hand recount for April.

A. Catcher Sandy Alomar in 1990.

Voice of summer
"God gave Deion something he left off my plate."

-- Reds manager Bob Boone on Deion's return.

Jim Caple is a Senior Writer for

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