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BILL PLASCHKE

Language Is Still a Barrier for Nomo

March 25, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

VERO BEACH, Fla. — He wades through the crowd here, bodies straining at the ropes to touch him, children shouting his name, and you think of opportunities.

He sits in front of the TV cameras, smiling, respectful, and you think of possibilities.

He walks through the clubhouse, younger pitchers nudging each other, watching him for clues to greatness, and you think of the question.

Isn't it time Hideo Nomo learned English?

Isn't it time he invested more of himself into a team and community that have invested so much in him?

The good news is, Nomo has returned sound and strong as he prepares for his third Dodger season.

The bad news is, interpreter Michael Okumura has returned with him.

He's in the clubhouse before games. Down the hall from the dugout during games. With reporters after games.

Depending on whom you believe, Nomo either cannot speak English or doesn't want to.

As a result, the world-renowned pitcher spends his days behind a wall. He did not build it, but he certainly is doing nothing to tear it down.

The wall separates him from his fellow Dodgers. One veteran said he has spoken "20 words to him in three years, tops."

He is considered a good, easygoing teammate who never causes trouble. But you wonder, how much harder might they play behind a guy they actually know?

The wall also separates him from the team's fans, to whom he cannot communicate anything beyond a fastball. What long has made the Dodgers special is that their players have always given more.

The wall separates him from much of the Los Angeles community, which could benefit from the diversity he represents, the bridge-building that he symbolizes.

The wall also separates him from other notable foreign-born players.

Fernando Valenzuela began separating himself from interpreter Jaime Jarrin after two years with the Dodgers.

Chan Ho Park, in his fourth year in the Dodger organization, has studied English so fervently that he dropped his interpreter after one season and now speaks with ease.

Nomo, who has the money and time that many immigrants do not, essentially doesn't study English at all. He said Monday--through Okumura--that he last took an English class during spring training. Last year.

Shigetoshi Hasegawa, in his first year in this country as an Angel pitcher, doesn't even use an interpreter. He told the Angels he wants to be like everyone else, even if that means stumbling over some words.

Nomo, a proud and private man, will have none of that. When he joined the team under an avalanche of publicity, at 26 and after five years of success in Japan, he was in no mood to be laughed at.

"He is a proud man, a perfectionist in everything he does," said Fred Claire, Dodger general manager.

For that, he cannot be blamed.

But that was two years ago.

Last season, he signed a three-year deal worth $4.3 million. You can buy a lot of Berlitz with $4.3 million.

Eric Karros laughs.

"The guy is smart, smarter than all of us," he says. "If I was him, I wouldn't want to learn English. Think about all he can avoid--the media, the hassles of always talking."

Karros laughs again.

"He learns English, he opens a whole new can of worms. I certainly don't have a problem with that."

The Dodger bosses say they don't have a problem either. Nomo knows enough English to communicate with catcher Mike Piazza and pitching coach Dave Wallace on the mound, although Okumura needs to be summoned from the clubhouse for serious bench discussions.

"That can stop us a bit, but usually it's fine," Wallace said.

Nomo talks during games with fellow pitcher Ismael Valdes, but those camera shots of the two talking on the bench are deceiving.

"I've heard them talking to each other, and whatever they are saying, it's not English," pitcher Tom Candiotti said. "It's some mixture of Japanese and Spanish. It sounds like Ebonics."

Candiotti, who sees Nomo socially, says Nomo speaks more English that he lets on.

"For one thing, his wife speaks great English, talks to my wife all the time on the phone," he says.

He tells the story of a recent dinner, when Candiotti's wife, Donna, asked the Nomos about the difficulty in transporting pets overseas.

The Nomos were discussing the question in Japanese when Hideo looked at the Candiottis and said, "Quarantine."

"Now that is not an easy word," Candiotti says. "I think him not speaking English around here just makes it easier for him."

Okumura cautioned that knowing one difficult word is different from understanding the meaning of difficult sentences.

"He is not not trying to learn English," Okumura said. "He can talk it with teammates. He just still gets confused on things when he needs to know every single word. He is getting better."

That's good. We should complain? Nomo has been a model guest in this country, a model player in the clubhouse, a nice man who does his job between the foul lines and has offended no one.

"One thing that comes through is his respect," Claire said. "Respect for teammates, for the people he is around."

But think of what he is missing, what we are missing. Think of the relationships that could be formed, the good works that could be done, the arms that could be linked.

Think of responsibility. This community has fulfilled its responsibility of accepting him as if he were any other person, born in any other place.

Does Hideo Nomo have a responsibility to work harder in accepting us?

When asked a lengthy question about whether the language barrier was keeping him from fully contributing to his team and community, Nomo answered quickly.

"No," he said, and looked away.

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