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Nomomania Grips L.A. and Japan

July 04, 1995|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a prestigious black-tie event honoring Japanese businessman Tachi Kiuchi, chief executive officer of Mitsubishi Electronics.

Everyone who was anyone was invited. There were politicians, dignitaries, movie stars and corporate executives.

But when it was time to sit down for dinner, no one moved.

"There must have been 1,000 people there," Dodger President Peter O'Malley said. "And we were all huddled in small groups listening to transistor radios. Everyone wanted to hear how Nomo was doing."

Dodger pitcher Hideo Nomo has dramatically changed the way folks go about their business these days.

In just a few weeks, he has emerged as a hero in Japan, a celebrity in Los Angeles, and baseball's greatest public relations coup since Bo Jackson.

"It's so fantastic, so stunning, so beautiful," said Yoshimori Hesono of Sports Nippon. "He's more famous than [former Japanese home run king] Sadaharu Oh."

Nomo, 26, has sent national pride soaring. When he returns to Japan in the off-season, they're likely to give him a hero's welcome he won't believe.

"I've never seen anything like this in my life," said Don Nomura, Nomo's agent, who lives in Tokyo. "Whenever he pitches, it's like everybody stops what they're doing. He's become the Michael Jordan of our country."

Said Hidemi Kittaka of the Kyodo News Service: "You can become the most popular person on your street if you own a satellite TV. If you don't have one, guys like me just go to the office to see it.

"It's gotten crazy around here. It's like the whole country knows everything about the Dodgers now. Everybody talks about Mike Piazza and his power. They don't like [Jose] Offerman because he keeps making errors in Nomo's games. And [Ismael] Valdes is quite famous because he's always in the same pictures with Nomo.

"Men like me are so proud of Nomo, and what he's doing for our country. And you talk to women now, and they say, 'Oh, I didn't know Nomo was so cute.' "

Nomo, whose wife and 3-year-old son are staying in Osaka, Japan, until next week's All-Star game in Arlington, Tex., has been briefed about the craziness back home. Kikuko, his wife, can't venture out of the house without being hounded by photographers. Several Japanese magazines have offered to buy her story.

Nomo, who scolded Japanese reporters in the spring about invading his privacy, frets about the attention. He wants to bring his wife, son and parents to the All-Star game but asked an American reporter if photographers would want to shoot pictures of his family.

"Sometimes, I wish I was just another player," Nomo said. "My privacy is very limited. At least here, I can go out. They know my name, but they don't know my face yet. In Japan, they know everything about me. I feel so restricted."

He has a slew of Japanese reporters awaiting his arrival each day in the clubhouse, and last week, after he pitched his second consecutive shutout, everyone wanted a piece of him--"The CBS Evening News," "The NBC Nightly News" and ABC's "Good Morning America." He has talked to publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to People magazine.

"I feel bad for him sometimes," Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said. "It's like he's in a giant fishbowl and the whole world is watching."

And to think that only a few months ago, Nomo arrived here with a sore shoulder, out of shape, and was told that he probably would open the season pitching in triple-A at Albuquerque.

Now he will represent the Dodgers in the All-Star game. Nomo, 6-1, who has won six consecutive starts with a 0.89 earned-run average, becomes the first Dodger rookie pitcher to make the All-Star game since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981.

"I don't think any of us ever expected anything like this," said Nomura, his agent. "Now, I've got my phone ringing off the hook with endorsements, advertisers, people wanting to do movies, write books, everything."

*

It's an elegant, aristocratic office high above left field at Dodger Stadium. There are a few autographed balls, a couple of plaques, but it could easily belong to a corporate chief executive officer rather than Peter O'Malley.

Why, there's only one picture of any Dodger player.

Hideo Nomo.

"Nobody's more excited about what Nomo has accomplished than me," O'Malley said. "It's just incredible. I think our fans want to see someone new, someone fresh. They want to be in on the beginning of someone's career. They want to enjoy and savor this moment, just like they did with Fernando.

"In my 25 years as club president, Fernandomania was my most exciting period. Well, we're at the threshold of something here."

O'Malley is responsible for Nomo being a Dodger. He eagerly waited for major league baseball to give permission for U.S. teams to negotiate with Nomo after the pitcher had declared free agency in Japan.

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