Nomo inspired Japanese players to American dream

TOKYO -- Hideo Nomo was a trailblazer and an inspiration to Japanese players who dreamed of playing in the U.S. major leagues, former teammates and opponents said a day after the pitcher retired.

Nomo announced his retirement in the United States on Thursday, bringing an end to an illustrious Major League Baseball career that began in 1995.

Nomo's 123 wins are the most in the majors by a Japanese pitcher. He was the 1995 National League Rookie of the Year with the Los Angeles Dodgers and is one of only four pitchers to have thrown no-hitters in both the American League and National League.

"He really inspired me to pursue my dream of playing in the majors," said pitcher Masato Yoshii, who pitched for the New York Mets in 1998 and 1999 and was Nomo's teammate on the Kintetsu Buffaloes. "He influenced a lot of athletes and is a real superstar. He accomplished so much."

Before he left for the majors, many in Japan wondered whether Nomo, with his unorthodox "tornado" delivery, could make it in a league with so many powerful hitters.

Any doubts, however, were soon put to rest. Nomo led the National League in strikeouts in his first season and went 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA.

"He showed that the level of Japanese baseball was not that different from the major leagues," said Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh. "He inspired others to follow in his footsteps."

When Nomo signed with the Dodgers, he became only the second Japanese player to reach the majors -- Masanori Murakami pitched 54 games for San Francisco in the mid-1960s.

Pitchers such as Yoshii, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Hideki Irabu followed in Nomo's footsteps.

"The history of Japanese baseball can be divided into two eras -- pre-Nomo and post-Nomo," said Robert Whiting, author of several books on Japanese baseball. "He changed everything. Without him, I wonder if there would be any Japanese playing in the United States."

Nomo's success in the majors also had a drastic effect on the popularity of Major League Baseball in Japan.

Watching Nomo strike out the likes of Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones and Tony Gwynn was a source of national pride in a country that constantly measures itself against the United States.

National broadcaster NHK quickly picked up on the popularity of Nomo with live broadcasts of his games. NHK now televises more than 300 major leagues games each season.

"Nomo-mania" gripped Japan, where fans followed his every pitch, long before Japanese players became commonplace in the majors.

"Nomo wouldn't give in or back down to anyone," sports writer Seijun Ninomiya wrote in Friday's Sports Nippon newspaper. "That was his way of doing things."

Nomo finished 123-109 with a 4.24 ERA with the Dodgers, New York Mets, Milwaukee, Detroit, Boston, Tampa Bay and Kansas City.