Do you know who Hideo Nomo is?
If you’re not a sports fan, you probably have never heard of him.
Hideo Nomo was a baseball player.
He was only the second Japanese player to play in Major League Baseball when he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers back in the 1990s. (Masanori Murakami was the first with the San Francisco Giants in 1964.)
Nicknamed the “Tornado” for his unusual twisted pitching delivery, Nomo possessed a devastating split-finger fastball that would help garner him a Rookie of the Year award and an All-Star appearance in his first season in the big leagues.
Beyond his baseball talents, however, Nomo was a sensation because of the “curiosity factor” of being from Japan. Fans would throng to stadiums with signs written in Japanese characters. Reporters from both Japan and America would follow him around. And MLB batters would flail weakly at Nomo’s splitter.
They called it Nomomania. And I was hooked.
It was the summer of 1995. I followed Nomo’s exploits avidly. I checked game box scores to see how many strikeouts he registered and whether he got the win or loss. I read articles to find out how he pitched, and looked up stats to see where his earned run average and strikeout totals ranked in the league.
Every time Nomo pitched well and got a win, I would be jubilant. And every time he pitched poorly and lost, I would be down. When I watched him pitch on TV, I would be nervous, on edge, like I was pitching myself.
The funny thing is I wasn’t even a baseball fan. Before Hideo Nomo came to the Major Leagues, baseball barely registered on my sports radar screen.
But for me, Hideo Nomo was not just a baseball player; he was an Asian baseball player. And to see an Asian face in a major US sport like baseball was a revelation at the time.
How many Asian athletes did you see on ESPN back in the day? Few to none.
In many ways, Hideo Nomo was an underappreciated pioneer of Asian athletes in American sports for the imprint that he left on popular sports consciousness. He helped pave the way for subsequent Asian athletes to make an impact in the USA — not only baseball players like Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui but also stars in other sports like Yao Ming in basketball.
I’m sure that other Asian Americans have similar personal stories about Asian athletes like mine.
Some people may dismiss this issue of race and representation in sports as insignificant or politically incorrect. After all, in “post-racial” America, race supposedly doesn’t matter.
But it does.
This is especially true given that Asian Americans are not highly represented in sports. And America still clings to stereotypes about Asian people like a bad drug habit. Asians are unathletic, bookish, nerdy, yadda, yadda.
The situation of Jeremy Lin is instructive. Despite being one of the top high school basketball players in California, Lin did not receive a single Division 1 college basketball scholarship and barely got a recruiting sniff from schools in California.
Instead, Lin had to go to Harvard University to play D-1 ball, even though it doesn’t offer basketball scholarships. It’s doubtful that a White or Black guy with the same high school pedigree would be overlooked by colleges in this way. As Lin himself has said, “You don’t get respect for being an Asian American basketball player in the US.” In fact, Lin has faced racist taunts from both fans and even other players while playing guard for the Crimson. So much for “celebrating diversity.”
Sports stars are powerful symbols and role models, especially for Asian America. That’s true whether you are talking about Asian athletes from Asia like Hideo Nomo, native-born Asian Americans like Jeremy Lin, or multi-racial Asians like rising mixed martial artist Ben Henderson who was raised in Federal Way. Henderson, embraces his Korean background, is fluent in Korean, and studied Taekwondo as part of his heritage.
The emergence of Asian athletes in American sports is also about another type of color: green. Sports are big business, a multi-billion dollar industry. And one reason that US sports franchises are interested in recruiting athletes from Asia goes beyond just their talents. It also involves American sports leagues trying to exploit the Asian market.
In baseball, Ichiro has benefited the Seattle Mariners not only on the field but also through his marketing and merchandising appeal. Indeed, the arrival of Hideo Nomo in the US occurred not coincidentally in the 1990s, which were the go-go years of capitalist globalization.
Ultimately, sports are compelling for reasons not limited to the drama on the field. They are not just entertainment but a powerful medium in which larger issues of racism, big business, and cultural politics are played.