When I was twelve years old in the summer of 1995, I wanted a home LA Dodgers Hideo Nomo jersey more than anything. I was a baseball freak, and I devoured it just as I did pro and college basketball and football. In the mid-'90s, at the zenith of its American modern era popularity, I even watched a good bit of hockey. My enthusiasm knew no bounds. I was still at the age when I personally believed I could play a role in sports history (perhaps small forward at Michigan if I got that growth spurt I was hoping for), and, more importantly, sports still surprised me.
Twelve or thirteen is the perfect age to be a sports fan because, on one hand, you're intelligent and observant enough to understand the intricacies of plays, the beginnings of strategy. But, at the same time, you still have a bit of child-like wonder in you. The mystery and mythos of sports remains. You don't believe that anyone involved is a real person who, say, picks clothes up from the dry cleaners. And you're at the beginning of an understanding of your personal sports history. You're waiting for those magical moments as a spectator and participant that shape your views and allegiances. Anything can happen, or so it seems.
To an early teenaged version of myself, Hideo Nomo represented a lot of those ideas. He was this strange character from the East who was embarrassing any challenger with his devious forkballs and one-of-a-kind "tornado" windup. When he won the 1995 NL Rookie of the Year in a landslide, it felt as if the sky was the limit for him.
By that point, I had seen some dominant pitchers: Randy Johnson and his intimidating stature and devastating slider, Roger Clemens and his otherworldly confidence in establishing the strike zone, Greg Maddux and his deft control. But what Nomo was doing was different. He seemed to mow down batters. He looked like a video game to be honest. I thought that the man I was seeing was going to be just as good as any hall-of-famer. He had that air about him, in part because he didn't speak English, which presented a captivating cachet to a twelve year old. He could have been thinking or saying anything on that mound. He could have been a genius, probably was. And he communicated with his catcher using only speed.
What Hideo Nomo ended up being was good but not great. In his two no-hitters he showed flashes of that dominance I mentioned, but he jumped around to a few different teams, suffered some injuries, and finished with a diminuendo of a stint with the Royals before he called it quits for good yesterday. (When he was let go in April after a groin injury, I messaged a Kansas City friend of mine with "You guys had Hideo Nomo?") His 123 wins are nothing to sneeze at (and, you know, dude had two no-hitters, which I had kind of forgotten about), but he has become more famous for introducing the practice of superior Japanese players making the jump to the Major Leagues. He was not the Clemens-type of pitcher that he seemed destined to be. Since then, I've seen countless other bright stars burn out after their first year or two.
I wish I had bought that jersey from the Champs Sports in Oakwood Mall, because having a Dodgers Hideo Nomo jersey would have some nice kitsch value now. In a way that difference, wanting to own a piece of Hideo Nomo's legend (double no ho-Nomo) versus appreciating him ironically, is a sad commentary on what happens to a sports fan from twelve to young adulthood. I used to watch every one of his starts; now I don't know which team he plays for. I used to be enchanted by his foreign mystery; now I see that exoticism from a business angle. I used to believe that he had the potential to be the greatest pitcher ever; now experience has taught me to guard my expectations. I used to love baseball; now I don't have time for it. Hideo Nomo was the last of a dying breed, not for Japan or pitchers or baseball, but for me as a fan.