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Many Things Happen in Baseball
by Chikako Atsuta  (6/1/01)

My television set broke last year and I have never bothered to fix it, so these days whenever there is a program I want to watch, I have to go over to a friend's house. It's not often that I invite myself into someone's living room for a television event, but Hideo Nomo's pitching debut for the Boston Red Sox was one of those rare occasions.

On April 4th at 7 pm, I drove to Boston to the apartment of my friend Steve. He is a staunch Red Sox fan and didn't need any convincing to tune in to the game. Steve showed me into the living room, and then took his place on the couch next to his roommates, Paul and Michael. I shooed one of Michael's cats off a chair and took a seat for the opening pitch. Chips and beer were laid out on the coffee table. They had all started drinking beer after a long day at work, and their cheeks were pink from the moderate consumption of alcohol. They appeared relaxed, but I was nervous.

"You know how good Nomo is, right?" I asked.
"Yeah, yeah," Paul said without enthusiasm. He had checked some of Nomo's statistics on the Internet, but had never actually seen him play. Nomo's best years were in 1995 and 1996, the seasons in which he first came to America to pitch after leaving the Japanese League. The Japanese press and baseball establishment were outraged that one of their players would defect and play in another country. It took a great deal of courage for Nomo to cross the Pacific and join the L.A. Dodgers. He couldn't speak English and he knew well when he left that he had burnt all his bridges with the teams back home.

In America, Nomo was an immediate success. During his first season he won thirteen games and posted a 2.54 ERA. He threw more strikeouts than any other player in his league. He caught the attention of all of Japan and was on his way to becoming folk hero.

I watched his games via satellite in my Tokyo apartment. During Nomo's second season with the Dodgers, I decided to quit my job as a newspaper reporter in Japan, and move to the United States. I was married to an American, and my husband was beginning to feel the urge to return to his country. For much of that summer, my husband was away traveling, and whenever we spoke by phone about the logistics of the move, it always seemed as though we were interrupted by a bad connection or by a Laotian or Vietnamese operator informing us that more money was due.

The idea of moving to America and starting a new life worried me very much. Watching Nomo win ball games was the one thing that reassured me. In America, I'm going to be a big success just like Nomo! I thought so looking past the fact that I did not even know what I would do once I got to the U.S. His success helped me set aside anxiety over my deteriorating relationship with my husband, and helped me to recover from overwork at my newspaper. On my way to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where my husband had rented a house, I changed planes in Los Angeles. In an airport souvenir shop, I bought a little spoon with Nomo's name on it. This was my first purchase in the land of America.

"Here he is," Steve said. After a long delay due to a power outage, Nomo's debut against the Baltimore Orioles had begun. Standing on the pitching mound, Nomo did not look any different. His pitching style, which was given the nickname "the tornado", had not changed either. Seeing Nomo in a Red Sox uniform was a bit odd for me. I was used to him wearing the lighter blue colors of the Dodgers.

I began to get even more nervous. Would he be able to make friends in Boston? My feelings for him were like that of a concerned mother or sister. Lately Nomo had been having difficulties in baseball. After his first two impressive seasons with the Dodgers, Nomo had surgery on his elbow and since then was no longer as remarkable a pitcher. He was traded to several different teams and people began to forget about him. Before the game, I emailed all the Japanese people I knew to inform them of Nomo's debut with the Red Sox. I only got a few replies, all of which were written in a less than enthusiastic tone.

"Chicken fingers, stir-fried shrimp and broccoli, fried rice," I heard Paul ordering Chinese take-out by phone. How can you eat during Nomo's game? I thought, starting to get irritated. Paul came back and suggested a bet. He drew a chart on a piece of paper and filled headings with our names and categories that we would bet on: the Orioles' hits and runs against Nomo, the Red Sox's errors, the number of innings Nomo would pitch, and whether they would win or lose. Each of us filled the chart and took out two dollars. We made a pile of one-dollar bill in the middle of Chinese food in take-out cartons.

Moving to Cape Cod in mid-winter and changing from a Tokyo reporter into a house-wife was not a very good idea. My husband, whom I had not seen in quite sometime, seemed like a stranger. He was nothing more than somebody you might meet at a train station and chat with briefly. Soon, I found myself in a deep depression and unable to even get out of bed.

I moved to an apartment in Cambridge, where my ex-coworker from Tokyo was living while she studied at MIT. She had enrolled in a year long program, and for the duration of her studies in America, her husband lived and worked back in Japan. One holiday weekend while I was still crashed out in her apartment, her husband came for a visit. I overheard one of their conversations from the kitchen as I lay on the portable bed.

"So, why is she living with you?"
"She got separated from her husband."
"Hmmm... poor thing. When will he allow her to return?"
"I believe she left him."
"What? Really? How come?"
I groaned, looking at the ceiling. If I went back to Japan, they would make me feel like a loser for the rest of my life, I thought.

The game progressed to the seventh inning.
"How many hits now?" asked Michael, chewing a piece of chicken.
"Zero, so far," replied Paul.
"What? No hits?" Michael exclaimed and almost choked on his chicken wing.

I did not care about the bet and the two dollars I had placed in the center of the table. I wanted Nomo to win, that was all. I realized that I could not have peace of mind to sit back and watch a ball game after I moved to the U.S. I talked to Nomo in my mind: How many different things have happened to you and me in the U.S. since we came here? I thought of my divorce, of struggling to learn English and to get a job, of the laughter and the tears I had experienced. Why can't we both just have one good year?

By the time the eighth inning was over, the Orioles still did not have any hits. By the ninth inning, all of the Baltimore fans were cheering for Nomo. The television focused on a banner written in Japanese.
"What does it mean?" Micheal asked.
"It says 'Nomo Hideo'," I answered.
"Do you know what 'Hideo' means in Japanese? It means 'hero'," I said proudly.

The Red Sox left fielder caught a weak pop fly for the final out. Nomo's debut, an historic no-hitter was over. Steve started to laugh with joy. Michael froze in his chair. Paul fell on the floor in front of the TV monitor. I was relieved. Finally, I could relax. The game had surely won Nomo the adoration of New England fans for the season. But I still had to warn my friends not to get their hopes too high.
"Hey! Please don't expect too much. He might lose the next game. Nomo is only a human being," I told them. I had to say this because I know many things happen in baseball. Just like many things happen in life.

Chikako Atsuta was a Japanese freelance writer living in Massachusetts and a regular contributor to Gate 39.  For more information see: her memorial page. More selections from "Ako's East Coast Blues."

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