With more than 50,000 fans in the stands and a worldwide television audience, Monday’s World Baseball Classic thriller between Japan and South Korea arguably is the most significant international event at Dodger Stadium since “The Three Tenors” concert on the eve of the 1994 World Cup soccer final in Pasadena. It also might’ve been the loudest since The Beatles made their second-to-last concert appearance as a group in August 1966. Thunder sticks, flags of all sizes, painted faces, whistles and drums provided an unforgettable setting for Japan’s eventual 5-3 victory in 10 innings.
Nobody could’ve predicted the future nearly 15 years ago when pitchers Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo joined the Dodgers in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Park became the first Korean to appear in the Major Leagues, although it took time for him to establish himself as a consistent performer. Off the field, Park was a natural ambassador to the Korean American community. In attendance at Monday’s game was professional golfer Charlie Wi, who grew up in Southern California and excitedly recalled watching Park’s early years with the Dodgers.
Nomo’s career path took a fateful turn after stalled contract negotiations with the Kintetsu Buffaloes following the 1994 season. At the time, free agency did not exist in Japan and no player had appeared overseas in the Major Leagues since Giants pitcher Masanori Murakami in 1964-65. Murakami was a 20-year-old playing for the team’s Single-A Fresno team when a September promotion to the Majors caused both surprise and international drama as Japan didn’t want to lose its player. Murakami missed the first 23 games of the following season while the issue was debated and he eventually returned to Japan after the 1965 season.
When the Buffaloes agreed to release Nomo, it provided an opening to the Major Leagues. The Dodgers didn’t have any active scouting reports on Nomo, but Director of Asian Operations Acey Kohrogi checked his sources in Japan. Fred Claire, the team’s general manager at the time, was impressed someone with Nomo’s credentials in Japan would sign a minor league contract with the Dodgers because in Nomo’s words, “I haven’t proven anything yet.”