TOKYO (AFP) — Japanese baseball players on Friday saluted Hideo Nomo for opening the door to the US Major Leagues after the pioneering pitcher said he was retiring at age 39.
Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, paving the way for a wave of top Japanese players to cross the Pacific including Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
"Those of us who're playing in the Major Leagues owe him a lot," said Matsui, a star slugger for the New York Yankees.
"I want to tell him, 'You did a great job,'" said Matsui, whom Nomo struck out in April in his last Major League appearance with the Kansas City Royals.
Nomo, who has struggled with injuries for years, announced on Thursday that he was calling it quits, saying: "I don't think I can deliver a professional-level performance anymore."
"A pioneer to the US baseball world makes a decision at 39," Sports Nippon newspaper said in a headline.
"Goodbye, tornado," it said, referring to his twisting pitch.
Nomo was the second Japanese player in Major League Baseball after Masanori Murakami, who pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and 1965 before returning to Japan due to contractual obligations.
In his first US season, Nomo started the All-Star Game for the National League and was named the league's Rookie of the Year.
He pitched two no-hitters in the US Major Leagues, racking up 201 wins against 155 losses throughout his career in Japan and America.
"I became aware of his greatness as I'm wearing a uniform" of the Dodgers, said Japanese pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, who joined Los Angeles this year.
"If we haven't had him here, it would have been difficult for us to play right now," Kuroda said.
Tommy Lasorda, who managed the Dodgers when Nomo joined, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK: "He accomplished something that a very few guys have ever done. I want to congratulate him on having a tremendous career here."
Nomo also won praise from players who have stayed in Japan, where there have been growing complaints that the increasing flight to the United States has hurt interest in the domestic leagues.
Sadaharu Oh, who holds the world all-time home-run record and coached the national team to victory in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, credited Nomo with showing Japan's worth.
"He proved that the level of Japanese baseball is as high as it is in the United States and has encouraged other players to take the challenge," said Oh.
Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish, a rising star often seen as a future export to the Major Leagues, voiced hope that Nomo would keep playing.
"I think he still can play. In the Major Leagues, a lot of players reverse their retirement. I hope he'll do so," Darvish said.
Nomo was a pitcher for the Kintetsu Buffaloes of Japan's Pacific League when he went to Los Angeles.
He also played for the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Kansas City, who released him in April.
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