Nomo pitches in with some saving grace

Rupert Cornwell reports on the Japanese import who is taking America by storm
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The Independent Online
For the salvation of baseball, look to the city of angels and its predilection for foreign pitchers. Back in 1981, when the sport was recovering from an earlier strike lunacy, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed a little known 20-year-old from Mexico who couldn't speak a word of English. But he possessed a screwball which would have baffled the Almighty. Fernando Valenzuela had arrived, National League attendances soared and Fernando- mania was born.

Now, as the grand old game wallows in even darker disgrace, the Dodgers have done it again. His name is Hideo Nomo. He comes from Japan, and speaks only through an interpreter. But he throws with a wind-up that would have a contortionist screaming for mercy and has a forkball like a cobra. His presence on the mound puts 15,000 on the crowd at Dodger Stadium. They call him The Tornado, and for National League hitters he is about as dangerous.

These days, Nomo-mania has overtaken OJ-watching as the city's favoured summer pastime. Amid the fuss, it is easy to overlook one minor fact - the man from the Kintetsu Buffaloes, in Japan's Pacific League, does the business.

Like Valenzuela 14 years ago, his feats catapulted him to the NL's starting line-up in the All-Star Game earlier this month. Like Valenzuela, he seems certain to win his league's Rookie of the Year award. More impressive even than a 7-1 win-loss record are an earned-run average of 1.93 and 138 strike-outs, 19 more than his nearest NL rival and exceeded only by the flame-throwing Seattle lefthander Randy Johnson.

But even a Nomo cannot rescue a whole sport singlehanded, and expunge the scars of the eight-month strike which wiped out the 1994 World Series. Statistics are baseball's blood-line. But with a shortened schedule of 144 games instead of 162, every one of 1995's figures will bear an asterisk in the record books.

Last year, when the strike stopped history on 12 August, Tony Gwynn of San Diego was on pace to hit .400 for the first time since Ted Williams in 1941. This year if he were to pull off the miracle (and at .354 so far he surely won't) it would not count.

And there is no guarantee that 144 games will be played. As the anniversary of the strike approaches, owners and players have still not reached an agreement. Unthinkable as it may seem, no reason exists why the players should not walk out again.

Such is baseball's fall from grace that the All-Star game, despite the Nomo-Johnson pitching match-up, drew its worst television ratings ever. Finally, on the field if not at the bargaining table, matters are looking up.

Players and owners permitting, the 1995 season could produce a stirring climax. While Nomo electrifies the west coast, on the east coast one of the sport's most sacred records could fall on 6 September. That day, a grizzled, indestructible short-stop called Cal Ripken will play his 2,131st consecutive game for the Baltimore Orioles, surpassing the mark set by Lou Gehrig in 1939.

Gehrig batted behind Babe Ruth in the famous "Murderers' Row," considered perhaps the greatest hitting line-up ever. But if the Cleveland Indians continue in their present vein, that judgement may have to be revised. The Tribe, beloved as one of nature's eternal losers, haven't made the play-offs since 1954. Right now, they lead the American League Central division by an astounding 161/2 games, with a scarcely believable 57-22 record. The first seven in Cleveland's line-up are all hitting over .300.

In both leagues, the standings offer poetic justice. This was supposed to be the year when clubs from the rich media markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago would dominate the game. Instead, in the AL, the medium- market Indians, the unfancied California Angels and the Boston Red Sox are setting the pace. Ted Turner's money-laden Atlanta Braves look certainties in the NL East. But elsewhere modest Cincinatti and Colorado top the standings.

And who, with an eye for fairness, cannot be rejoicing at the humbling of the Chicago White Sox? They started 1995 as a favourite to reach the World Series, but went into last night's game in Boston 23 games behind Cleveland. The Sox are owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, arguably responsible more than any other individual for the ruinous confrontation with the players. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.