The benchmark for Daisuke Matsuzaka is Hideo Nomo. Not the incarnation who passed through Boston at age 32 for one season, 2001, although he had some moments of splendor in his brief time here, throwing a no-hitter with 11 strikeouts in Baltimore in his Sox debut, following that up seven weeks later with a one-hit, no-walk, 14-K masterpiece against the Blue Jays, and leading the American League in both whiffs and walks.
Dave Wallace saw the earlier incarnation of Nomo, the Japanese pitcher who took the United States by storm after he bluffed his way to freedom in Japan and signed with the Dodgers, spawning the phenomenon known as Nomomania.
"He was the first one," Wallace said yesterday by telephone from Vero Beach, Fla., recalling how Nomo was cast as a traitor in Japan for exploiting a loophole in the rules (since closed) to become a free agent, voluntarily retiring from his team in Japan to test himself in the major leagues. "He had everything to lose and nothing to gain. He set the table for a lot of other guys, who are now reaping the benefits.
"His makeup was off the charts. He knew the game, he was extremely competitive, and you never had to worry about whether he was doing his work. He'd be at the field before everyone else."
Wallace, the former Sox pitching coach, was Nomo's first pitching coach in the major leagues with the Dodgers. He was there the day in 1995 when the rookie Nomo struck out 16 Pirates in June, watched as he baffled major league hitters with his strange, twisting delivery and bottomless forkball, saw him get named as the starting pitcher for the National League in the All-Star Game, and proudly witnessed him being awarded the Rookie of the Year after a season in which he led the league in strikeouts (236), shutouts (3), and hits per nine innings (5.83), and was second in ERA (2.54).
"People went absolutely crazy for him," Wallace said, recalling the 4 percent bump in attendance at Dodger Stadium when Nomo pitched, the number of Nomo Dodger jackets and T-shirts and sweatshirts that flew out of the team's gift shops, the hordes of reporters and cameramen that dogged his every step, the sensation he created on both sides of the Pacific.
"I'm sure the Red Sox marketing people are already planning how to recoup their money."
Of the six Japanese-born pitchers who have made at least 10 starts in the big leagues, Nomo remains the only undisputed success story. One of the six, former Sox prospect Tomo Ohka, who threw a perfect game for Pawtucket and is now a free agent, is the only one still in the big leagues. Four returned to Japan, including Hideki Irabu, who enraged Larry Lucchino in San Diego when he insisted he would only pitch for the Yankees after the Padres had purchased his rights, forcing a trade to the Bombers, then was unforgettably dubbed "a fat . . . toad" by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner when he failed to cover first base in a spring training game.
"I'm not going to criticize him for not trying hard," Yankees manager Joe Torre said of Irabu, who had elbow surgery in 2000, finished his big league career with a 34-35 record and 5.15 ERA, was a bust on his return to Japan, and is said to have opened up a noodle shop in Los Angeles. "I just saw his personality waver a little bit."
Kazuhisa Ishii won 36 games in three seasons for the Dodgers, but was released by the Mets after he walked 48 batters in 89 1/3 innings and went 3-9 in 2005. Mac
There is even a cautionary note in the Nomo saga for the Sox: Nomo, who was Matsuzaka's age (26) when he began with the Dodgers, was gone from LA just three years later. Nomo, who had been unusually close to Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, who doesn't receive enough credit for baseball's growth in the Pacific Rim, was unhappy because O'Malley's role had been reduced by the team's new ownership, because manager Tom Lasorda had resigned, and Wallace had left. He and his agent, Don Nomura, demanded a trade. With his record 2-7 and hitters learning to lay off his forkball, which he threw inconsistently for strikes, general manager Fred Claire shocked him by giving Nomo what he'd asked, designating him for assignment, then trading him to the Mets.
Nomo went 4-5 for the Mets and was released. Over the span of 21 months, he would belong to six teams. It appeared his heavy workload in Japan had caught up with him. He had thrown more than 140 pitches 61 times in his career, by one estimate, and in his last season in Japan he threw a staggering 191 pitches in one game, walking 16 batters.
There were other nagging injuries (a strained hand and a split nail) and finally in 2004, a strained rotator cuff that would foreshadow the end. But beginning with his Sox experience, Nomo experienced a renaissance, winning 45 games in three seasons, including back-to-back 16-win seasons for the Dodgers, who brought him back to considerably less fanfare than the Nomomania nearly a decade earlier.
"He had injuries," Wallace said yesterday, "but knowing him the way I did, I knew he would be able to resurrect his career, and pitched well for 10 or 11 years."
The Sox, who already have laid out $51 million in their efforts to acquire Matsuzaka, have a pitcher that many baseball people feel has the stuff to eclipse Nomo's achievements. It remains to be seen whether he has Nomo's will.