Hideo Nomo is a relief. Not a relief pitcher. Not comic relief. An escape. A diversion from negative occurrences, both in his Japanese homeland and in trendy, nutsy Los Angeles where the "Tokyo Typhoon" has become the sporting rage in the messy Summer of '95.
Japan, devastated by the Kobe earthquake and traumatized by lethal gas attacks in Tokyo subways, has turned to Nomo for injections of pride and a national smile. He hogs Japanese magazine covers and is constant Page 1 stuff in newspapers.
When their hero pitches for the Dodgers, imperial millions are up by 4 in the Rising Sun morning, devouring live television coverage of Nomo as he spins into action 17 hours away.
Los Angeles, despite UCLA's national collegiate basketball championship, has been in a jock-suffering mode, especially with both of its pro football franchises fleeing, the Rams to St. Louis and the Raiders to Oakland.
Nomo has become the Angelino Advil. A pain easer. Southern California's rookie Alka-Seltzer. A salvation for a hugely eclectic L.A. megalopolis that had become disappointed by the Lakers, oblivious to the Clippers, confused by the Kings and bored by the O.J. Simpson trial.
Suddenly, in a season of U.S. basketball turmoil, baseball was the sport being talked about, with the Dodgers in first place and also the California Angels of the AL West.
Hideo is Topic One.
He is a 26-year-old right-hander who launches a baseball with the slow, spinning purpose of a master wine steward's corkscrew.
Nomo, with a 91 mph fastball and a nasty forkball, is the fresh phenom in a United Nations pitching rotation that has L.A. Blue flirting with NL West supremacy.
Nomo's windup is Luis Tiant squared. A creepy, crawly whirling dervish who throws arms high above head, then stretches like a suspect about to be cop-frisked, followed by a dramatic pause and then a semi-pirouette climaxed by the baseball astonishingly flying toward home plate.
It is a page from nobody's hardball textbook, but it works for Nomo. Worked for a 78-46 record through five seasons with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japanese Pacific League. Overworked in fact. Hideo once threw 198 pitches in a game back home; 191 another time; 140-plus throws on 41 occasions. In the majors, a pitcher is seldom allowed 110.
Nomo is the first Japanese pro to jump to U.S. baseball. Massanori Murakami pitched for San Francisco in 1964-65 and was the only previous big-leaguer born in Japan. When the Typhoon sent his agent searching in America, the Giants showed first interest. Los Angeles came with a $2-million signing bonus and swept Nomo away.
Beyond his high-horsepower Japanese import, manager Tommy Lasorda serves up two flame throwers from the Dominican Republic (Ramon Martinez and Pedro Astacio), a Mexican talent (Ismael Valdes) who is often billed as the next Fernando Valenzuela and, for diversity, an Italian-American knuckleballer (Tom Candiotti).
Nomo pitches tonight against the Colorado Rockies. Dodger Stadium will be alive with 50,000-plus. Tokyo TVs will be tuned.
Hideo is 5-1 with a spiffy 2.30 earned-run average. He'll recognize the Rockies, who sobered the Typhoon in his second major-league start on May 7, smashing Nomo for seven runs, nine hits and three homers in 4 innings.
Since then, Nomo has been terrific. He leads the National League with 96 strikeouts, on pace in a strike-curtailed season of 144 games to surpass Don Drysdale's team record of 261 Ks by a right-hander, set in 1967.
Hideo's windup is so snail-like and exaggerated he would seem a sucker for baseball stealers. It's the slowest thing to come out of Japan since the Honda Civic. But when runners are on base, "Slo-mo Nomo" manages to juice up his delivery. Base thieves are still most effective on his watch.
Nomo owns up to understanding little English. While in baseball uniform, Hideo doesn't speak much of anything, except with his new best Dodgers buddy, the aforementioned Valdes, a 21-year-old right-hander with a 5-2 record and sizzling 2.11 ERA.
Among the Dodgers, the nickname for Valdes is "Rocket," due to his first name's similarity to the surname of Raghib Ismail, the Raiders football wide receiver.
"Rocket Valdes and Hideo Nomo are inseparable," said Los Angeles Times sports columnist Mike Downey. "They're always on the bench together. Laughing together. One guy speaks Spanish, plus a little English. Other one is all-Japanese, unless Nomo is fooling us. But they find many ways to communicate. They find great shelter in one another."
There are obvious parallels with Valenzuela, who romanced L.A. into early-1980s delirium. Hideo, like Fernando, spoke little English. Each man pitched beautifully. They became the intriguing cores of upbeat cults. Also, when about to heave a baseball, neither Nomo nor Valenzuela chose to follow the old pitching axiom of "keep your eyes on the target."
Fernando, upon rocking back on his left foot, would roll eyeballs skyward, as if looking to God instead of the Dodgers' catcher. Hideo's vision, just before he uncoils, is off on palm trees or something else out beyond the leftfield wall.
Nomo, like any Japanese athlete making a dent in American sports, is stalked by a media herd. More than 100 writers and photographers flew from Tokyo to Vero Beach for spring training. There were 200 Japanese journalists when Hideo pitched his first game May 2 at San Francisco.
He's fed up with them.
Although not much for interviews, the Tokyo Typhoon agreed to sit down with Sports Illustrated, but only if the U.S. magazine agreed to not sell its manuscripts to Japanese publications.
Nomo finds solace with his Mexican pal, Valdes. They come to Dodger Stadium together, they leave together. Somehow they converse. They gesture. They enjoy. From a distance, journalists like Downey sense a frisky Nomo personality.
"Fernando was pretty stand-offish as a Dodgers rookie," Downey said, "but by his second season, Valenzuela was one of the team's leading practical jokers.
"We'll see how Hideo is for the long run. You wonder if he kind of threw his arm out in Japan and will be old at 28 or 29. You wonder if he's to become the pitcher, and the personality, that Fernando became. But, for now, Nomo is just the hottest thing going in L.A. sports, unless you count the NFL moving vans headed to St. Louis and Oakland."
Big-screen televisions, set up in high-traffic areas in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Sendai, Sapporo, Fukuoka and Matsuyama, will broadcast Hideo Nomo's start tonight against Colorado.