Long-shot Nomo gets a chance with KC

Nomo a long shot in KC camp

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Hideo Nomo sat beneath an aerial view of Kauffman Stadium. Back in Kansas City, the stadium is undergoing an extensive renovation. Here in Spring Training, so is Nomo's career.

Nomo, once a hero of fans from Los Angeles to Tokyo, is trying a comeback with the Royals after a two-year absence from the Major Leagues.

The Royals held their first official workout for pitchers and catchers on Thursday and a wall of 34 Japanese photographers, TV crew and reporters lined the walkway as Nomo strode into the clubhouse door.

Nomo didn't stop to talk. He's media-shy, agent Don Nomura explained, since his controversial departure from Japan to the Dodgers in 1995. But Nomo agreed to a post-workout news conference with countryman Yasuhiko Yabuta, signed by the Royals as a setup reliever.

Nomo is 39 years old, a non-roster player, a rehabilitation project since elbow surgery in 2006, a sidekick and mentor for Yabuta, and a real long shot to make the club.

He's wearing No. 91 on his back, not the 16 he showed to batters with his twisting windup in his NL Rookie of the Year season of '95. "The Tornado" was asked if his devastating split-finger fastball was as good as ever when he pitched this winter in Venezuela.

"So-so," he replied.

For the Caracas Leones in seven starts, Nomo had a 6.59 ERA, an 0-2 record and opponents had a .310 average. But he pitched just 13 2/3 innings, not much of a test.

Nomo was asked about it and gave a lengthy answer in Japanese.

"Some days it rained and sometimes he couldn't throw from the mound," translator Shingo Matsubara said. "But his shoulder and elbow -- he didn't have any pain at all."

In short, Nomo feels his right arm is ready. He had some setbacks after the removal of an elbow bone chip in June 2006. He also had shoulder surgery in October 2003.

"He still feels he can pitch," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "He's a great competitor. Somebody was going to give him a chance at the Major Leagues -- why not us?"

Why not. Nomo had 11 years in the Majors. In his first three years he won 43 games for the Dodgers. As recently as 2003, during his second L.A. tour, he won 16 games and had a 3.09 ERA.

Maybe the magic can reappear.

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"He's here because he is the winningest Japanese pitcher in the history of the American leagues here in the United States," manager Trey Hillman said. "I won't deny there is the obvious advantage of having [him help] Yabuta but we've got him lined up the same way we do everybody else to have the opportunity to win a job on our staff."

That, at the moment, is geared to Nomo being a starting pitcher as he's been in all but two of his 320 big league games. If that doesn't work out, he could be tried in the bullpen.

"If, after the arm trouble that he's had, he is anywhere close to what he used to be, especially with this [split-finger] as an out pitch, we might have something," Hillman said. "We'll evaluate that when we give him opportunities and when he's ready to face hitters."

Nomo was a Japanese trailblazer when he left Japan's Kintetsu Buffaloes after a contract dispute and joined the Dodgers. He was the first Major Leaguer from Japan in 20 years, since Masanori Murakami, and more than 30 would follow him.

"The more success we have in the United States from Japan is a pride factor for their country. They're proud of their own in doing a good job at their craft in a foreign country," said Hillman, who managed in Japan the last five years.

"The game is very sacred in Japan. When guys come over here like Hideo Nomo and have the success ratio they do, that's a big deal anywhere but it's especially big in Japan."

Nomo has given his countrymen 123 victories, a rookie trophy and an All-Star start, two no-hitters, 200 strikeouts four times and countless occasions for pride.

But it's been four years of slow going for Nomo since 2003. The next year he was 4-11 for the Dodgers. In 2005, his last big-league stop, he went 5-8 for Tampa Bay. He's since been signed by the Yankees and the White Sox without a call to the Majors.

Now he's got another chance, perhaps the last one. The renovation project is in the works.

"The intriguing thing for me is he was the best in the United States for a number of years," Hillman said. "Arguably, he had the best or one of the best splits in the United States. ... When you've got a guy with one of the best out pitches ever, I'm anxious to see it and see if it's still there."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.