There's a famous Japanese film about a 16th-century samurai who
aids a band of young, innocent warriors against feudal
overlords. Sanjuro, as the samurai calls himself (and as the
film is titled), teaches the youths to question authority and
helps them bring down the system. Don Nomura sees himself as a
kind of 20th-century Sanjuro. He wants to emancipate Japan's
baseball players and humble their front-office oppressors.
Nomura is the first players' agent in Japan, where free agency
is considered a serious breach of decorum. "Over there, teams
have always dealt with players one-on-one," says Nomura, 38,
running his fingers through his buzz-cut reddish hair. He's a
meticulous man, exacting, exhausting. "Japanese teams don't
recognize agents for Japanese players," he says.
Which presented a problem when Kintetsu Buffaloes ace Hideo Nomo
asked Nomura to negotiate his 1995 contract. Initially, the
Buffaloes balked. Nomura was kicked out of the first negotiating
session. And the second. After getting nowhere without Nomura,
the team let him sit in on meeting No. 3. Nomura insisted on a
multiyear pact, unprecedented for a native Japanese. Kintetsu
told Nomo: Sign a one-year deal or quit. So Nomura had Nomo
retire from Japanese ball and jump to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
You know the rest.
The price of Nomo's freedom was high for Nomura. He has been
blackballed by all 12 clubs in the Japanese league. Team
officials routinely attack him in the press. Even the
commissioner won't take his calls. "I'm called a self-promoter
who wants to inflate costs," Nomura says. "But the more I'm
blocked and badmouthed, the more energized I get. It reminds me
of how I was treated as a kid."
Nomura knows discrimination. Growing up in Tokyo, he suffered
the slights that haunt konketsu--children of mixed blood. His
mother was Japanese, and his father was a white Jewish
bowling-ball importer from Brooklyn. They divorced when Don was
six. "In Japan, if you have a drop of different blood you're
treated as an outsider," says Nomura, wincing slightly. "I
didn't know what my identity was. I thought like a Japanese but
looked like an American."
His mother married again, this time into baseball. Her new
husband, catcher Katsuya (Moose) Nomura of the Nankai Hawks, was
Japan's Triple Crown winner in 1965. His 657 career home runs
still rank second in Japan behind Sadaharu Oh's 868. Moose
adopted Don and gave him his Japanese surname. "It helped me get
into places and meet people," says Don, who repaid the favor in
1990 when Moose became the skipper of the Yakult Swallows:
Stepson worked out stepdad's contract.
Even as a boy, Don refused to kowtow. He was expelled from his
English-language Catholic high school in Tokyo as a junior, for
fighting. "I refused to kiss up to my teachers," he says. "They
liked nice little boys who studied, and I wasn't a nice little
boy." He wasn't a nice big boy, either. His confrontational
nature didn't endear him to the Swallows, the team for which he
spent four years, from 1978 to '81, wallowing as a bush league
In the Japanese game, personality and individuality are
subordinated to wa--a sort of spirit of group harmony. To screw
up is to bring shame to the team. And Nomura was a classic
screwup. He clashed with coaches, ballplayers, even the team's
bus driver. "I wasn't afraid to ask questions," he says. "And in
Japan, to ask a question can be an offense in itself."
For the affront of asking his manager if he could play in a
game, Nomura was once benched for two weeks. "The regimentation
drove me crazy," he says. "I came to the pros thinking baseball
was something I loved. I found it was something I hated. I left
the game thinking I never wanted to pick up a baseball again."
In 1981 the 24-year-old Nomura moved to California, where he had
studied from '75 to '77 at Cal Poly Pomona. He bused tables in
several restaurants. He worked behind a desk in a travel agency.
He washed cars and cleaned toilets, and he managed a motel for
$10 a night. He moonlighted as an interpreter and invested his
pay in California real estate. By 1989 he had enough cash,
$300,000, to buy 50% of a Class A team, the Salinas Spurs.
Stocked with Japanese players, the club lost money and most of
its games. When Nomura sold his share of the Spurs in '92,
pitcher Mac Suzuki asked him to be his agent. Suzuki is now a
Seattle Mariners prospect, playing Double A ball.
There was another Japanese phenom Nomura wanted to bring to the
States: Katsuhiro Maeda, a 24-year-old Seibu Lions pitcher with
dyed blond hair and a fastball clocked in the mid-90s. Last
November, Nomura asked Maeda to retire from the Japanese game,
as Nomo did. But Seibu rejected Maeda's letter of resignation,
so Nomura had the righthander sit out the 1996 season. Seibu
then sold its rights to Maeda to the New York Yankees, and on
May 14 the Yankees signed the pitcher to a minor league contract
that included a $1.5 million signing bonus. "Katsuhiro is the
Dennis Rodman of Japanese ball," Nomura says. "I like his
uniqueness. The Lions did not like his uniqueness."
Nor do they like Nomura's. "We hear a lot of players say they
think it would be regrettable if agents came into the picture,"
Masuru Madate, administrator of legal affairs for the Japanese
league, has said. "As players, they are part of a family, but
introducing an agent destroys the family feel and reduces the
whole relationship between players and managers to just a cold
contract." Yet one player, requesting anonymity, says, "If I had
Nomo's talent or guts, I'd hire Nomura as my agent."
Japanese management is especially unhappy with the way Nomura
has championed the rights of players imported from the Dominican
Republic. Nomura says that nonwhite foreign players in Japan
have been asked to sign seven-year nonnegotiable contracts for,
at best, the minimum salary received by Japanese players. One of
the Dominicans is Robinson Checo, a former Nomura client who
pitches for the Hiroshima Carp. After Nomura learned last year
that Checo was earning less than half the minimum salary of
Japanese players, he charged in the press that Hiroshima had
impounded Checo's passport (to which the Carp admitted) and
forged his signature on his contract. Then Nomura negotiated a
series of incentive raises for Checo. Since then the Carp have
filed a $1 million defamation suit against Nomura. Checo, no
longer with Nomura, has re-upped with the Carp on condition that
they send him next year to the Boston Red Sox.
"Nomura may think he can challenge Japanese baseball rules,"
says one league official, "but he may run into problems trying
to do the same thing in Japanese ball that Marvin Miller did in
the U.S. major leagues. To U.S. owners, their teams are top
priority. Teams here are just corporate subsidiaries, priority
number 4,325. Japanese baseball takes care of problems as they
crop up. If Nomura becomes a problem, he will be taken care of."
Nomura shrugs off this not-so-veiled threat. "My daily job is to
get Japanese teams to talk to me," he says with Zenlike
equanimity. "They recognize I exist, but they won't admit they
recognize I exist."
He splits his time between L.A. and Tokyo, where until recently
he managed a youth baseball team. Under Nomura's helm, the club
won the national championship for 13- and 14-year-olds four
years in a row. Nomura's approach to coaching was decidedly
un-Japanese. Instead of one pitcher, he had four. He let his
players chew gum and spit on the field. And he encouraged them
to speak up.
"I don't say it's good," Nomura says slyly. "But it's breaking
COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAER [Don Nomura]
COLOR PHOTO: NIKKAN SPORTS Nomo's signing by Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley (center) in 1995 has been Nomura's biggest success. [Don Nomura, Peter O'Malley and Hideo Nomo]