Today we’re going to visit a story about America’s national pastime, cultural insensitivity, and how one determined lawyer can fuck everything up. In other words, this is about as American a story as one can tell.
Baseball is a game played all over the world. It’s common to see players in Major League Baseball from all nationalities. Even though it’s referred to as “America’s National Pastime,” there are leagues in places like Japan and Korea where games draw huge crowds of enthusiastic fans. These days, if someone in a league overseas wants to play in MLB, it’s not hard for agents to negotiate a deal for that player to come to the states.
That wasn’t how business was always done. Back in the 1960s, Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) had a practice of sending prospects to America’s minor leagues. The idea was the player would develop their fundamentals then come back to Japan and play for the team with which they originally signed.
Masanori Murakami was one of those players. Sent to the developmental team for the San Francisco Giants, it didn’t take long for the pitcher to stand out. The Giants decided to do everything they could to keep Murakami with them.
Unfortunately, Murakami originally signed a deal with NLB’s Nankai Hawks. The Hawks wanted their star pitcher back in Japan, honoring his original deal. After internal discussions, Giants management decided to compensate the Hawks for unexpectedly sending them a great pitcher. So the Giants sent a check for ten thousand dollars.
The Nankai Hawks were pissed. So was the Japanese press. They ripped Murakami a new asshole in the media, calling him a greedy traitor. It eventually became too much for Murakami, who returned to Japan in 1966.
Major League Baseball didn’t want an international incident on the league’s reputation so the following year MLB and NLB hammered out what would be called the “Working Agreement.” It was essentially a mutual agreement where America and Japan promised to stay away from the other country’s players.
All of this would change in the 1990s with a pitcher for the Kintetsu Buffaloes named Hideo Nomo. Nomo rose through the NLB ranks with a peculiar pitching style where he’d wind his entire body up, then whirl around in a corkscrew motion while throwing. Apparently Nomo developed this pitching technique while playing catch with his father.
The Buffaloes got a new manager in 1994 who was, to put it mildly, a hard-ass. He demanded Nomo pitch until poor Hideo’s arm felt like it was about to fall off. Nomo pitched so many times he injured his arm and ended up on the disabled list for that season.
Nomo was bitter, hated his manager, and wanted out of the NLB. He’d been told by American players he’d do great in the Major Leagues, and if Nomo ever played again he swore he’d do it in America. There was just the question of his contract.
Enter a freshly minted California lawyer named Janet Afterman and a baseball agent named Don Nomura. As the pair watched a game at the Tokyo Dome, Afterman asked Nomura why Japanese players didn’t play in America.
Nomura said, “Funny you should ask that,” and filled Afterman in on the details of the 1967 “Working Agreement.” “I’ve been looking for a player that will challenge the system,” the brash young agent told the lawyer. Sure enough, Nomura and Hideo Nomo met in a Tokyo coffee shop.
Nomo made his intentions clear to Don Nomura: he would head to the States the following year and he wanted the agent to find a way to get him in Major League Baseball.
So Don Nomura and Janet Afterman sat down with Nomo’s contract. It was incredibly strict—the team had total control over the player’s career. And the terms of the “Working Agreement” strictly prohibited active players from heading to MLB.
The key word for Afterman and Nomura was “active.” If Nomo retired, he could theoretically then head to America and play in the major leagues. The catch was Nomo couldn’t just voluntarily retire. He had to petition his team for retirement and the team had the final say.
Nomura told Nomo the plan. They were going to renegotiate Nomo’s contract and Nomo would act like an American while they were in talks with the Buffaloes.
We’re now in November of 1994 at the Kintetsu Buffaloes’ offices in Osaka, Japan. Yasuo Maeda, the team President, is a touch miffed at Don Nomura’s gall. Who the hell did this guy think he was? Maeda told Nomura they didn’t have agents in the office and asked him to leave.
As Nomura left, he said to Nomo, “Remember the plan and stick to it.”
Nomo then demanded a six-year contract with a guarantee of thirty million dollars. The Buffaloes management didn’t know whether to be shocked or offended. “We don’t give guarantees to kids like you,” they told Nomo. “Asking for that kind of money is disrespectful, and you’ve got a sore arm anyway.”
Hideo Nomo held his ground. Either the team ponied up the dough or Nomo wouldn’t play. So the Buffaloes management then threatened to voluntarily retire Hideo.
“Okay, retire me,” the pitcher said. “Fine, we will,” management basically replied.
Nomo and Nomura couldn’t believe the team took the bait. Nomo announced his retirement shortly after these talks, and the Japanese media reacted like we would have if Michael Jordan announced his retirement after winning his first championship. Nomo was labeled a dishonorable traitor in the press. Death threats were regularly hurled at Don Nomura for brokering this whole scenario.
It was nothing to Nomo, who signed with the Dodgers early in 1995. In May of that year, Nomo took the pitcher’s mound with Japanese and American sports press watching. The Japanese treated it as if they were about to watch a star player flame out.
But Nomo got better. That corkscrew pitching style confounded some of the best hitters in the major leagues. Eventually the Japanese sporting press ran out of excuses for Nomo’s success and finally gave him his due.
Hideo Nomo never forgot the treatment his countrymen gave him as he left Japan, though. He even turned down a congratulatory phone call from Japan’s Prime Minister, telling Don Nomura he saw the gesture as empty ass kissing.
More and more Japanese players exploited what Janet Afterman referred to as “The Loophole” to come play in America. Today Japanese fans almost expect players to represent their country in Major League Baseball.
All it took to break the “Working Agreement” was one fed-up Japanese player willing to do what no other would: act like an asshole American.