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Japan's Tornado takes US by storm

EVERY year one American sports figure captures the imagination of the public. This year is no exception - except that the new icon is a Japanese pitcher for the Dodgers baseball team in Los Angeles who speaks little English and is shy of celebrity.

In the last six months, Hideo "Tornado" Nomo, 26, has been entrusted not only with saving baseball the way Babe Ruth did in the Twenties, but also restoring Japan's self-regard after a year of cult attacks, the Kobe earthquake, economic slump, trade disputes and rows over the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

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

Nomo is the first Japanese to play in American major league baseball in 30 years. His 6-1 win-loss record and fantastic run average, slaying every US baseball star with his baffling 90mph pitches, have made him the toast of the US and Japan.

In Japan he has become the quintessential local boy made good. Not only has he been entrusted with restoring Japan's image, but he has become a romantic symbol, countering the national Japanese stereotype for social conformism and compliance to the strictures of corporate Japanese life - a youth who threw away a safe career to pursue a dream.

In the US the sport is in desperate need of a boost: a year-long dispute between players and major league owners paralysed the game, and viewing figures are down 25 per cent since last year.

Nomo, with almost no English, is lionised as a celebrity player at home and was recently selected to play in the All-Star game, a mid-season championship of top players which has not invited a rookie pitcher to play in 15 years.

"The most famous Japanese in America is neither the Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, nor the Minister for International Trade. It is the pitcher, Tornado Nomo,who is building up a mountain of strikeouts with his fork ball," said one Japanese commentator.

Now the Japanese , even those who don't know anything about baseball, are getting up early to watch satellite broadcasts at shopping malls. So enamoured are they that a leading insurance firm has offered Nomo a million- dollar advertising contract and travel agencies have started $1,600 (pounds 1,000) "Nomo Tours" to Los Angeles that include tickets to a Dodgers game.

"It's so fantastic, so stunning, so beautiful," says one overwrought commentator for Sports Nippon. "Men like me are so proud of Nomo and what he's doing for our country. You talk to women now and they say: 'I didn't know Nomo was so cute'."