Mile High City

Once upon a time, a ballpark stashed away in the lower downtown area of a city built a mile above sea level played host to a different brand of baseball. In this park, line drives ricocheted off bats into expansive green gaps, twelve-to-six curve balls-instead of intimidating batters into jelly-legged stances-floated enticingly into sweet hitting zones, and lazy fly balls carried, and carried, and then carried some more to nestle or thud beyond the outfield fence. In 1996, at Coors Field, all of these moments were taking place with mind-numbing frequency. In 1996, the home ballpark for the Colorado Rockies witnessed a total of 1217 runs-an average of 15 runs a game. In 1996, 271 home run runs (270 traditional long-balls and one of the inside-the-park variety) were tallied inside this second-year stadium. Opponents hit .304 with a .501 slugging percentage when visiting Coors Field. But those numbers seemed pedestrian when compared to what the Blake Street Bombers totaled when they had last-ups. In 1996, the Rockies hit .343 and slugged .579 at their home park. In a way, the Rockies turned into a roster of Rogers Hornsbys when they played at Coors Field. Dante Bichette. Andres Galarraga. Vinny Castilla. Larry Walker. Ellis Burks. These were some of the names penciled into the lineup cards for the Rockies that season, forcing opposing pitchers to check their itineraries for the first plane out of Colorado.

Hideo Nomo as a Kansas City Royal in 2008 (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, a Japanese-born pitcher arrived in the United States and with a twisting, halting, springing windup, began flinging split-fingered pitches with devastating effect. He threw five shutout innings and allowed one hit with seven strikeouts in his Major League debut. A month-and-a-half later, he struck out 16 Pirates. On July 11, he started the 1995 All-Star game for the National League and struck out Kenny Lofton, Edgar Martinez, and Albert Belle during his two scoreless innings. Hideo Nomo emerged as the conductor of a symphony whose defining piece of music was titled “Nomo-Mania.” The twist of the delivery, the splitter that traveled on a even plane for 59 feet and then dropped like a bowling ball hurtling into the gutter, the stoic attention on his battery mate when perched on the rubber, the gleeful joy expressed by the widening smile at the end of any of his 13 wins in 1995-these were the elements that transformed Hideo Nomo from litmus test and curio to one of the most dominating and captivating pitchers in the Major Leagues. In 1995, opponents amassed a .556 OPS when they faced Hideo Nomo, basically turning into a team of Mark Belangers when they stood in the box against number 16 from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In 1995 & 1996, Hideo Nomo dominated like few others could. He, along with the Greg Maddux and Kevin Brown, reduced hitters to mere accessories in a continual game of pitch and catch, and transformed each stadium into an account book for innumerable swings, misses, weak replies, and trudges back to the dugout. Each stadium that is, except for Coors Field. Through the first 10 months of Hideo Nomo’s career, he pitched two games in Colorado, and the aggregate results suggested that he, like any other superhero, was not immune to certain forces of nature. Here is Nomo’s combined line from his first two starts at Coors Field:

  • 9.2 Innings Pitched
  • 18 Hits
  • 12 Earned Runs
  • 5 Home Runs
  • 11.17 ERA

Once upon a time during a cold, rainy September night in Colorado, 15-game-winner Hideo Nomo walked slowly toward the mound and faced his own version of kryptonite. The Dodgers entered the contest with 85 victories and held a tenuous lead in the National League West, a half-game ahead of the Padres and six-and-half games in front of the 79-win, third-place Rockies. Nomo peered in for the first sign of the night and began his twisting, then halting, then springing motion toward the plate. Eric Young, standing in the right-handed side of the batter’s box, swung just a tad late on the fastball running low and away, and lifted a fly ball toward right-center. A moment to wait…and then exhale. For this was Coors Field, and any fly ball lifted toward a gap in the outfield could begin a rally. But on this night, in the cold and damp air, Wayne Kirby moved toward his left and in between drops of rain, accepted the ball into his glove.

Every ballgame tells its own story. Some burst early, taking on the pace and associated pulse-beat of a track meet, where hitters become base-runners with alarming frequency. The slugfest. Others seemingly glide along on an uninterrupted, repeating rhythmic course only to be pierced by the abrupt crack, roar, and rising tension. The pitcher’s duel. And some meander here and there; they pick up themes and then discard them after a quick sniff, preferring to settle into an evolving pattern that reveals itself more sharply with each passing inning. In the early innings on September 17, 1996 in Colorado, the game seemed to follow the traditional Coors-Field template: the Dodgers scored in the second and third innings and a third of the way through the game, held a 3-0 lead on the home team. The Rockies had threatened in the first and second, thanks to walks and stolen bases, but they hadn’t pushed across a single run. And they still didn’t have a hit. Curiously, since the beginning of the second inning, Nomo had pitched exclusively from the stretch. Due to the rain, Nomo had decided that his full windup would be affected by the wet conditions on the mound, and so he minimized and reduced his unique approach. But neither the rain, nor the cold, nor the ballpark, nor the abrupt change in motion would aid the Rockies on this autumn-like evening. Through four innings, Colorado still didn’t have a hit. When they failed to get a base-runner on in the bottom of the fifth inning, the game became official. And the tension became real.

The tension, of course, would build through the latter part of the game. The contest would become less and less about a pennant race. When the Dodgers came to bat in the top halves of innings, opportunities for rest and relaxation arrived. And then, in the bottom frames, the attention would focus squarely on the right-hander walking to the mound. Always the same measured pace. The warm-up pitches proceeding with regularity while the pulse inside the stadium quickened. The final toss, with the baseball traveling from mound, to plate, to second baseman covering at second, to the shortstop, to the third baseman, and finally back to the pitcher. A strikeout, lineout, and fly ball to center told the story of the bottom of the seventh. The ball didn’t leave the infield in the eighth. And then suddenly, miraculously, Hideo Nomo stood three outs away from a no-hitter. At Coors Field. Against the Blake Street Bombers. In the ninth, a couple of groundouts to second brought Ellis Burks to the plate. Burks-putting the finishing brushstrokes on one of the all-time fun seasons in baseball history-had lined out deep to right (instigating another of those deep breath, hold, wait, exhale moments), walked, and chopped back to Nomo. Hitless, but still hitting over .340 on the season. I’ll let Vin Scully recount the rest of the story, for he can do it much better than I.

“He is one out away, and Ellis Burks, the National League player of the week, is standing in Nomo’s way of a no-hitter.

Burks is the other player to come close to breaking the no-hitter. In the sixth inning, he hit a come-backer, and Nomo reached up and grabbed it and threw him out. And now the picture will tell the story-Ahh, shut up.

How does this sound in Japanese? Ken Fukuhara and Masanori Murakami…”

Note: Scully then stayed quiet and listeners got to hear a couple of moment’s worth of the two gentlemen calling the game for broadcast in Japan. Scully resumed the call after Burks fouled off a pitch.

“…One ball and one strike. On deck, Dante Bichette, who has struck out three times. Ellis Burks hitting .348.

Fastball missed, ball two. The way the ball carries here, the inability to really break off a good curve ball, makes what he has done, up to here, truly remarkable. Two and one.

And now, one precious strike away.

Got ‘im! Hideo Nomo has done what they said could not be done. Not in the mile-high city. Not at Coors Field in Denver. He has not only shut out the Rockies, he has pitched a no-hitter, and thank goodness, they saw it in Japan.”

Once upon a time, Hideo Nomo was considered among the handful of the most dominant and remarkable pitchers on the planet. After a brief call up in 2008 with the Kansas City Royals, it looks like his career has come to a quiet, unremarkable close. Once upon a time, the Blake Street Bombers and Coors Field united to create a unique and awe-inspiring brand of offensive baseball. Coors Field has since softened its effect on the scoreboard, and new sluggers and line drive hitters populate the ballpark in Colorado. The game, as it has always done, swings on a pendulum between offense and pitching. In 1893, the pitching distance was lengthened (to its present distance of sixty feet, six inches), and the resulting offensive numbers remain a high-water mark in the game’s history. The first decade of the 20th century witnessed a swing in the other direction, as pitchers controlled the action and the environment. From the lively ball era led to prominence by Babe Ruth in the twenties, to the pitching-dominated late sixties apexed by Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and Denny McLain’s 31 wins in 1968, baseball continually sways its favor. But even in the extremes, iconic and time-stilling performances will emerge out of the seemingly impossible and place their imprint on the game’s timeline and consciousness. Honus Wagner can compile an OPS of .957 in 1908 when the league average stands at .626. Lefty Grove can win 31 games against just four defeats and allow almost two-and-a-half runs less than the league average in the American League in 1931. Frank Howard can somehow power out 44 home runs in a pitcher’s park in 1968. And Hideo Nomo, like the hero in a fairy tale who slays the dragon, can stand in the center of the most hostile environment possible and twist, halt, spring, and pitch himself into the history books, where we will return to begin the story, ‘Once Upon a Time.’

Thanks to baseball-reference.com, retrosheet.org, and baseball-almanac.com for information-statistical and anecdotal-that helped with this piece. Thanks too, for Vin Scully’s television broadcast call of the final out of Nomo’s no-hitter.

 

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