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8 Upper

Twist and Shout

By Tom Scocca | Posted 4/11/2001

ORIOLE PARK, APRIL 4--Seeing a no-hitter was the last thing on my mind tonight. Two days ago, sure. With Pedro Martinez on the mound, you're always thinking about the chance of the other team going hitless.

I wasn't wishing for a no-no; the Mark McGwire-fueled trend of cheering against the home team in the hopes of seeing the opponent do something great has always seemed creepy and wrong to me. But you only worry about things like that with the mighty Pedro on the hill. Tonight is just a game. A friend who knows the right people offered me an absurdly good ticket. On the chance that some news might happen--a pinch-hit homer by Jay Gibbons, say--I stopped by the press room to pick up a score sheet before settling down in row BB.

So here I am, having another look at the 2001 Orioles and taking the opportunity to watch Hideo Nomo pitch for the Red Sox. Oddly enough, the only other time I've been in these seats, last Aug. 30, Nomo was also on the mound, pitching for Detroit. Jose Mercedes cruised to a two-hitter while Nomo gave up four runs in five laborious innings--but Nomo's pitching is what I remember of that game.

There is nothing like seeing Nomo at work, up close. The pride of Osaka is not a sensation anymore, the way he was while going 29-17 with 470 strikeouts his first two seasons with the Dodgers. He was 8-12 with the Tigers last year and is pitching for his fifth team in sour seasons. He is, however, a walking piece of baseball history, like the late-career Fernando Valenzuela or a certain 40-year-old ex-shortstop. And he still throws the ball the same way as ever.

Nothing--not his "Tornado" nickname, and certainly not the center-field camera --does justice to Nomo's windup. Seeing it is like hearing a Bob Gibson fastball thwack somebody's rib cage, or smelling booze on Babe Ruth's breath. He stands stiffly on the mound, feet together, looking for all the world like a baseball-themed Nutcracker. He is one of the few Boston Red Sox to wear his stirrups low and his pants legs up, so that you can see he in fact has red socks. His arms are slightly away from his sides, his hands bent inward. He waits.

Then he puts his hands together and raises them far above and behind his head, arching his back. After that comes the indescribable part: He rears and twists, pulling down his hands as he raises up on his right foot and turns his back fully to the plate. He pauses there, coiled, peering over his left shoulder. Then, still poised on one leg, he seems to unhinge his hips from his spine, sliding them an inch or two toward third base and rotating them another five or 10 degrees. He holds this pose, and then, in one quick motion, uncurls it, the ball flying out of who-knows-where and doing who-knows-what on its way to the plate.

Baseball doesn't have much respect for the unusual. You can fool people for a while, the wisdom goes, but sooner or later the game figures you out. That was the story last August: The O's got used to the Tornado, settled down, and knocked him out. The same goes for his stateside career--two incredible seasons, one decent one, and 26-32 since. He did get elbow surgery around the time he started to slip, but who cares?

Through four innings tonight, Nomo's half of the scorecard is far messier than Sidney Ponson's. The O's young Aruban has struck out nine of the first 14 Boston batters; his only mistake is a two-run homer by Brian Daubach (after the 40-year-old ex-shortstop let a grounder get past him at third base). Nomo, meanwhile, has allowed two walks, thrown a wild pitch, and seen a runner reach on an error.

Only when I check the scoreboard do I realize that there's still a 0 in the H column. I file this fact away. In the bottom of the sixth, Nomo strikes out the side. Out of respect for baseball tradition and my Sox-rooting companion, I bring up the subject elliptically: Say, did you notice that the Orioles are doing . . . remarkably little against Nomo, here?

An inning later, after three more strikeouts, the O's have still done remarkably little. Nomo is figuring them out, not vice versa. They're hacking blindly at high fastballs now, and flailing at diving split-fingers. Nomo coils and throws, coils and throws. After the Sox touch Ponson for another homer in the eighth, Nomo has a 3-0 lead. I'm still hoping the O's break through, but I'm beginning to feel giddy about what it means if they don't.

They go gently in the eighth, with Martinez's nemesis, Jerry Hairston Jr., whiffing for the third time tonight. By the bottom of the ninth, there's no question of the O's winning the game; the only question is whether Nomo can get the next three outs. Brady Anderson taps back to the mound, and the crowd starts to cheer. Mike Bordick loops a ball over the infield; the crowd jumps up to look and watches second baseman Mike Lansing cross behind the bag into shallow left-center and make a rolling, diving catch.

The whole house is Nomo's as Delino DeShields steps up and flies out to left field. That's it. 0 R, 0 H. Hideo Nomo has the first no-hitter at Oriole Park, just as he had the first--and still the only--no-hitter at Coors Field in 1996. I'm not happy he did it, exactly, but I'm glad I was here to see it.

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