AN OPPOSING VIEW OF BASEBALL'S NON-LOCAL HERO
(Sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Mon, 31 Mar 1997)
BUNTING: NOMO NOT TRYING TO LEARN ENGLISH, THEY SAY
I ran across something in the Daily Yomiuri this morning that set me a-thinking. Although I spend about as much time on the Sports Pages as I do on the Japanese Op-Ed (always flaccidly calling for reform), an article on Hideo Nomo did sound worthy of retyping to everyone. This is from Sunday, March 30, 1997's DY, pg 25. A few comments follow.
NOMO--LOS ANGELES' ARTFUL DODGER OF SPEAKING ENGLISH
By Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times
VERO BEACH, Fla--He wades through the crowd here, bodies straining at the ropes to touch him, children shouting his name, and you think of opportunities. He sits in front of the TV cameras, smiling, respectful, and you think of possibilities. He walks through the clubhouse, younger pitchers nudging each other, watching him for clues to greatness, and you think of the question.
Isn't it time Hideo Nomo learned English? Isn't it time he invested more of himself into a team and community that have invested so much in him?
The good news is, Nomo has returned sound and strong as he prepares for his third Los Angeles Dodger season. The bad news is, interpreter Michael Okumura has returned with him. He's in the clubhouse before games. Down the hall from the dugout during games. With reporters after games.
Depending on whom you believe, Nomo either cannot speak English or doesn't want to.
As a result, the world renowned pitcher spends his days behind a wall. He did not build it, but he certainly is doing nothing to tear it down. The wall separates him from his fellow Dodgers. One veteran said he has spoken "20 words to him in three years, tops."
He is considered a good, easygoing teammate who never causes trouble. But you wonder, how much harder might they play behind a guy they actually know?
The wall also separates him from the team's fans, to whom he cannot communicate anything beyond a fastball. What long has made the Dodgers special is that their players have always given more.
The wall separates from much of the Los Angeles community, which could benefit from the diversity he represents, the bridge-building that he symbolizes.
The wall also separates him form other notable foreign-born players.
Fernando Valenzuela began separating himself from interpreter Jaime Jarrin after two years with the Dodgers.
Chan Ho Park, in his fourth year in the Dodger organization, has studied English so fervently that he dropped his interpreter after one season.
Nomo, who has the money and time that many immigrants do not, essentially doesn't study English. He said--through Okumura--that he last took an English class during spring training--last year.
Shigetoshi Hasegawa, in his first year in this country as an Anaheim Angel pitcher, doesn't even use an interpreter. He told the Angels he wants to be like everyone else, even if that means stumbling over some words.
Nomo, a proud and private man, will have none of that. When he joined the team under an avalanche of publicity, at 26 and after five years of success in Japan, he was in no mood to be laughed at.
"He is a proud man, a perfectionist in everything he does," said Fred Claire, Dodger general manager. For that, he cannot be blamed.
But that was two years ago.
Last season, he signed a threeーyear deal worth $4.3 million. You can buy a lot of Berlitz with $4.3 million.
Eric Karros laughs. "The guy is smart, smarter than all of us," he says. "If I was him, I wouldn't want to learn English. Think about all he can avoid--the media, the hassles of always talking."
Karros laughs again. "He learns English, he opens a whole new can of worms. I certainly don't have a problem with that."
The Dodger bosses say they don't have a problem either. Nomo knows enough English to communicate with catcher Mike Piazza and pitching coach Dave Wallace on the mound, although Okumura needs to be summoned from the clubhouse for serious bench discussions.
"That can stop us a bit, but usually it's fine," Wallace said.
Nomo talks during games with fellow pitcher Ismael Valdes, but those camera shots of the two talking on the bench are deceiving.
"I've heard them talking to each other, and whatever they are saying, it's not English," pitcher Tom Candiotti said. "It's some mixture of Japanese and Spanish. It sounds like Ebonics."
Candiotti, who sees Nomo socially, says Nomo speaks more English than he lets on.
"For one thing, his wife speaks great English, talks to my wife all the time on the phone," he says. "I think him not speaking English around here just makes it easier for him."
There was another article on the same page on Hideki Irabu, of Lotte Marines, snubbing the San Diego Padres--saying that if he doesn't get to play for the Yankees, he won't play for anyone, and jumping on a plane back to Japan (after fifteen minutes in the US) to prove his point. But I'll skip it because it was catty and used speculations as quotes. And also because it tries clumsily to deal with Japanese acting in ways they'd never dare at home--which is not really the issue at hand.
THE ISSUE AT HAND
is again one of assimilation. Should someone who's getting so much money and fanfare be allowed to get away with making so little of an effort to learn the language of his country of employment?
I hear you say: very few Americans (even Cromartie, despite several Tokyo years) could live without their interpreters; even nowadays, O'Malley over here still cannot muster much Japanese when the mikes are on him.
But look at other sportsmen. Wrestler Chuck Wilson is bilingual. So is soccer player Rui Ramos. Even footballer Alcindo gave it a go (and got a toupee for his trouble). And when the shoe's on the other foot in the US, plenty of people play ball and hit the books.
So allow me to be French about this: You work here, you learn the language. Or at least make the effort. I say there are no excuses for anyone, in any profession. I tend to agree with the writer of this article--after two years of this and three more to come, Nomo is just being lazy. And disrespectful.
What really gets me is this: after hearing enough about how badly-behaved Western athletes are in Japan (In the face of baseballs getting pitched at them, strike zones being widened, and hearing disparaging--and often racist--remarks in the sports press. I'm not sure I'd react much differently.), I do find it annoying when pampered Nomo gets such elite guest status, allowed to live in his Japanese-language bubble without even trying to break out.
Have I been sufficiently soapbox? People who are more in the know about Nomo, shoot me down.
In Da Sport-Writer Mode in Sapporo (hey, I'm half Polish, roots in Chicago!)
A RESPONSE FROM CYBERSPACE:
Date: Mon, 31 Mar 97
Dave, could you please lighten up a bit on your self-centered attitude? It's enough to make a poor lurker want to puke.
I believe that the majority of first generation immigrants anywhere do NOT learn the language. Just because you have a certain type of personality and want/need to learn the language, don't demand that everyone else have the same values.
I first went to Japan in 1979. I knew a number of foreigners who went to Japan while i was there, and the few who arrived within days of me and are still living there to this day, don't speak much Japanese. My own experience also leads me to believe that even if you learn the language, you are likely to experience far better mental health living abroad if you maintain a fair level of contact with those of your own culture. Assimilation is very stressful - if you're too extreme about it there's a good chance you'll burn out.
It's great to try to assimilate - i do so myself and i applaud anyone else's efforts. But you're far better off if you don't develop too large an ego over the efforts you make. There is nothing inherently "right", "moral" or anything else about it. If you enjoy it, do it. If not, don't. But let go of the self-righteousness around the issue, and you'll be doing yourself a big favor...No need to get hot and bothered when some poor local desires you to sign this way or that way. No need to envy Mr. Nomo his "special, pampered" treatment. He's just an ordinary guy using his own set of skills to make a living, just like you. He gets paid a lot more than you because he's worth it. Why begrudge him his good fortune (and hard work)?
(Click here to see my response: THE NOMO APOLOGIA)