Book Excerpt: The 50 Greatest Dodger Games of All Time
We've almost make it through the offseason. While there may be little news on Los Angeles home front, there are always ways for the savvy fan to occupy (s)himself; to keep warm until pitchers and catchers report. If you missed J.P. Hoornsta's "The 50 Greatest Dodger Games of All Time" (Riverdale Ave. Books, $9.99 Kindle, $19.99 paperback) back in 2015, I suggest you grab a copy now.
To whet your appetite for this fun volume, we begin our series of book excerpts with J.P.'s chapter 18, a celebration of Hideo Nomo's no-hitter, in pre-humidor Coors Field, don't cha know, September 17, 1996.
18. September 17, 1996: A no-no for Hideo Nomo.
Hideo Nomo had just made history. It was September 17, 1996 and the Dodgers right-hander had thrown a no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies in the most hitter-friendly park in Major League Baseball. Through the first twenty seasons of baseball at Coors Field, it remained a singular accomplishment. Now, Nomo needed to celebrate.
The 28-year-old pitcher called his parents in . Walking back to the team hotel with Dodgers publicist Derrick Hall, Nomo stopped at a local 7-11. He purchased a bag of beef jerky, a bag of chips and a soft drink. He signed autographs on a napkin, a ticket stub, a piece of tissue paper and a burrito wrapper for fans. The protocol had been set: After throwing a no-hitter at Coors Field, you call your parents and dine at 7-11.
Nomo was already a trend-setter, the first of many Japanese-born baseball players to cross the Pacific beginning in the mid-1990s. Breaking barriers was among his many talents. No one would have predicted that a pitcher could go nine innings without allowing a hit at Coors. The claim that a baseball travels nine percent farther at the mile-high stadium compared to sea level. Breaking balls thrown at that elevation don’t break as sharply compared to sea level. The park produced wildly inflated scoring totals from the moment it opened. Naturally, most pitchers hated Coors Field.
Nomo relied on his diving forkball to get batters out. This was his third start at Coors Field; the first two were horrible. As a rookie in May 1995, Nomo allowed seven runs in just four and two-thirds innings, putting a temporary damper on the “Nomo-mania” that was sweeping . “It’s not an easy park to pitch in for anyone,” Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza said after that game. “[Nomo is] going to be OK – as long as somebody lets him know not every park is like this one.”
Significantly, Coors Field was not its usual self on the night of Nomo’s no-hitter. Few nights carried the same strange combination of cold, rain and humidity – and maybe for the , a sense of foreboding. The first pitch was delayed by two hours but was still accompanied by a light rain. Umbrellas dotted the stands. Every player in the starting lineup except Dodgers center fielder Wayne Kirby and right fielder Raul Mondesi wore long sleeves under his jersey. Dodgers first base coach Manny Mota even wore a blue jacket under his short-sleeve gray top. The temperature was recorded at 46 degrees, the humidity at 97 percent.
With twelve games left in the season, the Dodgers were focused on a division title. They had won three straight games to take a half-game lead over the San Diego Padres in the National League West. The were hot too. They had won eight in a row before losing to the Dodgers the night before.
Nomo was the Dodgers’ best pitcher in 1996. He used a twisting tornado-like windup to baffle major-league hitters and average more than a strikeout per inning. On June 30 he allowed nine runs in five innings at Coors, but still struck out nine batters. Mark Cresse, the Dodgers' bullpen coach, said the heavy air was working in Nomo’s favor this time. “His forkball was really biting. You could tell it helped his confidence.”
But Nomo made a mistake in the first inning by walking the ’ speedy number-two hitter, Quinton McCracken. McCracken stole second base and went to third base on a deep fly ball by Ellis Burks. He was stranded there when Dante Bichette struck out on a forkball to end the inning. Because the ground was still damp, the Coors Field grounds crew poured dry dirt all around home plate and the pitcher’s mound between innings. It didn’t seem to help Nomo much. He still needed a thickly bristled brush to scrape mud from his cleats in the Dodger dugout. The fresh dirt didn’t help starter Bill Swift much, either.
Swift ran into trouble in the second inning when Mondesi hit a sinking line drive into the left-center field gap. The gaps are a bit bigger in , and Mondesi was a bit faster than most players at the time, so he was able to leg out a double. The next batter, Tim Wallach, hit a line-drive single to left field. Mondesi rounded third base but stopped – until Burks’ throw sailed over the head of the cutoff man and two other players, allowing Mondesi to score. Wallach scored on a single by Greg Gagne, putting the Dodgers ahead 2-0.
Pitching with a lead for the first time, Nomo walked Galarraga to begin the bottom of the second. Galarraga got himself into scoring position by stealing second base, but Nomo struck out Steve Decker and retired Neifi Perez on a popout into foul territory. Through two innings Nomo had thrown forty-one pitches, a pace that would not allow him to complete the game.
The Dodgers added another run in the top of the third inning on a walk by Todd Hollandsworth, a single by Kirby and a run-scoring groundout by Piazza. Staked to a 3-0 lead, Nomo did something unusual in the fourth inning: he began to throw exclusively out of the stretch. This was Nomo’s creative solution to the ongoing problem of how to find his balance on a slippery mound. It might have robbed him of his trademark twisting windup, but the results were indisputable. After Burks walked to lead off the fourth inning, the got only one baserunner the remainder of the game.
Still, the odds of Nomo completing his no-hitter remained long. He was not only fighting the elements and the challenge of pitching at altitude, he was throwing a lot of pitches. Ball four to Burks was his seventy-seventh pitch. At that point, no reasonable coach would entertain the thought of leaving Nomo in the game simply to complete a possible no-hitter. Even Nomo didn’t allow the thought himself until the ninth inning. This was Coors Field. Nobody throws no-hitters at Coors Field. Yet the Dodgers’ bullpen phone never rang.
As it happened, the elements became Nomo’s ally. “It was a little muggy and the ball didn't carry as well as it usually does here. That might have helped us,” Piazza said after the game. With two outs in the fourth inning, slugger Vinny Castilla crushed a 3-0 pitch to the warning track in right field. On a typical night, it might have been Castilla’s fortieth home run of the season. Instead it was a long out.
Swift finally ran out of gas in the sixth inning. A double by Kirby, a walk to Piazza, then consecutive RBI singles by Karros and Mondesi gave the Dodgers a 5-0 lead. Individual jeers from the crowd were audible as manager Don Baylor walked to the mound to remove his starter. Reliever Steve Reed retired the side without allowing another run, but the half-inning lasted twenty minutes from start to finish – an eternity for a pitcher to wait in a cold dugout.
Nomo immediately walked Young, the National League’s stolen-base leader, to begin the bottom of the sixth inning. But he picked off Young leaning toward second base, a rundown ensued, and Nomo himself tagged out Young at first base. He had thrown eighty pitches through six innings. It was then that Vin Scully, who is not prone to hyperbole, asked aloud on the Dodgers’ television broadcast if this could “possibly be as good a game ever pitched in the history of the game.” There were still three innings to play.
The rain had subsided by the seventh inning. This is when Nomo hit his stride. He needed nine pitches to record three outs in the seventh, and twelve pitches to record three outs in the eighth. In between, Nomo found time collect his tenth and final hit of the season, driving in a run.
The ninth inning began in the middle of Wednesday afternoon in , where Nomo Nation was watching and listening from their homes, offices and shopping malls. While most of was falling asleep, ESPN picked up the Dodgers’ broadcast feed in the . Nomo was forced to endure another long half-inning on the bench as the Dodgers batted in the ninth. Nine men came to the plate and the Dodgers scored three runs – two on a long home run by Wallach – to take a 9-0 lead. Nomo was the last man to bat. His name was announced to a standing ovation at Coors Field. He then struck out on three pitches.
Young, McCracken and Burks represented the ’ final hope. The first two batters grounded out easily to Dodgers second baseman Delino DeShields. Burks had been named the National League Player of the Week earlier in the day; he batted 18-for-28 (a .643 average) in seven games prior to Monday. Now, Burks was the only man standing between Nomo and a no-no. He took a ball outside, then foul-tipped another pitch to the same location. Nomo’s 1-1 pitch was low for a ball. A swing and miss evened the count at 2-2. Nomo shook off Piazza a couple times before breaking off a forkball in the dirt that Burks couldn’t resist. A swinging strikeout ended the game. Only then did Nomo break into a wide smile, joining his emotions with all the fans who brought “Nomo” banners – and many more who began the dreary night cheering for the .
Considering everything – the conditions, the ballpark – Dodgers manager Bill Russell likened the game to one of the best pitching performances of all-time.“It beats everything,” he said after the game. “You’d have to put it right there. The perfect game in the World Series. This here, you have to rank it with the top ones.”
Nomo said that getting a win in the middle of a pennant race meant more to him than pitching a no-hitter. Dodgers trainer Pat Screnar believed him: “When he walked into the trainer's room ... you’d never know he pitched a no-hitter.” The sentiment was typical Nomo, who was never one to place individual accomplishments above those of his team. The beef jerky, then, was for the win.
J.P. Hoornstra covers Major League Baseball for the News Group. He once recorded a keyboard solo on the same album as two of the original Doors. When he graduated from UCLA on time, he missed getting Schwarzenegger’s autograph on his diploma by four months. His first book, The 50 Greatest Dodger Games of All Time, published in 2015. When he isn’t rumbling through the hills of on a quest for coffee, he’s usually at a ballpark.