Gettin Shig-ee With It

Shigetoshi Hasegawa pursues baseball, golf balls and the American dream

Shigetoshi Hasegawa was sitting literally on a bed of roses. Two years after leaving Japan for Newport Beach, changing his uniform from the Orix Blue Wave to the Anaheim Angels, and realizing his dream of playing major-league baseball for a living and paying low greens fees to golf in his spare time, Hasegawa was riding a float in the 1999 Rose Parade—a smiling, waving floral arrangement of the 20th century's dreamy California fixation.

"At the time, I'm not so sure that Shige [pronounced Shig-ee] knew exactly what the Rose Parade was all about," muses Ed Clevin, a Boston-based sports agent who negotiated the financial aspects of Hasegawa's globe-spinning assimilation. "He just knew he wanted to be a part of the culture here."

As the Edison International float motored slowly through the dazzling pageantry of that crisp, bright New Year's morning, it soon became obvious that the hundreds of thousands of people applauding along the Pasadena parade route weren't so sure about Hasegawa, either. Most of them saw his baseball uniform and Japanese features, quickly added them up in their heads, and shouted out this greeting: "Nomo! Nomo!"

They thought he was Hideo Nomo.

"People still ask me about Hideo Nomo," Hasegawa acknowledges now, nearly two years later, and he breaks into a smile when he says it. "I guess I should be happy about that. Because I can only dream to be a pitcher like Hideo Nomo."

Nomo is the Japanese ballplayer who smashed through the international date line to become an instant superstar with the Dodgers in 1995. He was the best pitcher in Japan when he opted to test his success against America's hitters, who are the best in the world. His decision was controversial, offending many fans back in his homeland; it was considered presumptuous or a mere curiosity by many of those awaiting him in the United States. Upon his arrival, he was followed by a swarming media entourage that recorded nearly everything he said or did and racked up huge ratings by broadcasting every game he played back to Japan live—in the middle of the night.

In such circumstances, Nomo's success was astounding —not just what he accomplished but how he did it. With a whirlwind wind-up, a flaming fastball and a baffling forkball that dropped like a rock when it reached home plate, Nomo overpowered and bewildered National League batters. In his first year, he won 13 games, with a stingy earned-run average of 2.54. He threw a no-hitter. He was the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game. He was voted Rookie of the Year. Along the way, he roused Dodgers fans into a state of enthusiasm unknown since the arrival of Fernando Valenzuela in the early 1980s. The phenomenon was called Nomo-mania.

But by the first day of 1999, as the people watching along the Rose Parade route mistakenly shouted his name, Nomo was already long gone from Southern California. Nearly seven months earlier, the Dodgers had traded him away. His arm was sore. His fastball had slowed, making his forkball more hittable. His earned-run average had ballooned to 5.05. He had won only two games while losing seven. Meanwhile, because of his stoic personality, his embarrassed reluctance to speak English and the insulating techniques he cultivated to perform under the intense scrutiny of superstardom, Nomo had developed few warm relationships with teammates and fans. His farewell was not particularly fond—it was just another business transaction.

Hasegawa has not forgotten Nomo's impact upon his own life, however, which is why he was not insulted by the case of mistaken identity that intruded upon his moment in the New Year's sun.

"I was thinking about coming to America to play baseball long before Hideo came here," Hasegawa emphasizes. "I was thinking of it on my own. But it can also be truly said that I came here because of Hideo. Because Hideo was the best pitcher in Japan. So if Hideo could not get success here, I would know I had no chance."

Baseball is a team game, but at the professional level, each team is a collection of career paths—very personal means to very practical ends.

"The difference between me and maybe other players from Japan, like maybe Hideo Nomo, is the difference in our dreams," says Hasegawa. "Hideo, he had the dream of playing baseball right here, testing himself against the best. And I wanted that challenge, too. But it was not really my dream. My dream was to live here."

Hasegawa laid out that plan for his life in 1988 as a skinny kid from Ritsumeikan University, a couple of days after the plane carrying him from Kyoto, Japan, touched down in Southern California for a college baseball tournament. "I decided right then," he recalls, "that for the future, I'm gonna stay here. Because the weather is so nice; in Japan, the winters are so cold. And also, I love golf—and it's much cheaper to play here, you know? In Japan, we've got to spend $200 or $300 for one game. And not only that, but life is good. I went to Universal Studios, Disneyland and the beach. It's fun, and the people are friendly."

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