(Editor's note: Each Thursday, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important moment from this week in sports history. We call it Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
On September 17, 1996, in the top of the eighth inning at Colorado's Coors Field, the crowd gave a standing ovation to the visiting pitcher. The Los Angeles Dodgers' Hideo Nomo had yet to allow a hit, the longest for any pitcher in the batter-friendly ballpark's short history. Rockies and Dodgers fans alike gamely recognized his effort. So did venerable Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who declared, "I mean, anybody who can throw seven innings here and not allow a hit should be carried up to home plate in a gold sedan chair!"
Scully may have been understating matters.
Nomo ended up throwing a no-hitter, finishing off the game with a strikeout of the Rockies' top hitter, Ellis Burks, on a pair of nasty, bending split-finger fastballs. It was that sort of night. To do what Nomo did, when he did it—to throw the first and only no-hitter ever at Coors Field, to blank one of baseball's most ball-mashing teams in a hit-happy era—arguably counts as the greatest regular-season pitching performance in baseball history.
Nomo overcame the numbers: before his no-hitter, the Rockies were averaging 8.3 runs and 12.6 hits per game at Coors Field. He overcame history: Colorado had only been shut out twice in 1995, the team's inaugural season at Coors, and in one of those games Atlanta's Tom Glavine gave up six hits and a walk in the process. Nomo overcame the elements, too: hours of rain delays before the game, a mound so slippery that he abandoned his signature whirling Tornado delivery midway through the game just to maintain his footing, and lengthy late innings that saw the Dodgers bat around while their pitcher sat in the damp, chilly dugout, blowing on his hands to keep warm.
More than all that, Nomo overcame Coors Field: a mile-high ballpark where hitters ruled and ERAs went to die.
Coors Field was built for batters: its gigantic dimensions force outfielders to play deep, and bloop singles behind the infield are a regular occurrence even if you can keep hitters from blasting home runs through the thin air. Nomo was one of the many starters who got lit up during the ballpark's debut season, serving up seven runs on nine hits and three homers in Denver in his second major league start on May 7, 1995. "He found out it doesn't matter what side of the Pacific you're from," Rockies manager Don Baylor told Sports Illustrated, "you can't elevate the ball in Denver. Every time he made a mistake, we got him."
In 1996, many of Colorado's grip-it-and-rip-it sluggers were having career years—Andres Galarraga, Ellis Burks, and Vinny Castilla would all hit 40 home runs, with Galarraga's 47 leading the way—but even mediocre hitters were finding success at Coors, like Eric Young (.412/.473/.549 in 72 games) and Walt Weiss (.337/.436/.444 in 78 games). Every single Rockies player with at least 100 plate appearances in Denver that year managed a .300 average—even Jayhawk Owens, a backup catcher who recorded a brutal .145/.295/.250 line in 38 away games the same season. At Coors, the Rockies hit an absurd .343 as a team and scored more than twice as many runs (643) as they did on the road (303).
Coors Field in 1996 may have been the most difficult pitching environment in major league history, and certainly the most difficult one of the past 20 years. In 81 games, the Rockies and their opponents combined to score 1,217 and hit 271 home runs, or 7.5 runs and 1.67 home runs per game for each team. Batters notched 1,900 hits in under 1,500 innings, and combined for a ridiculous .323/.391/.540 batting line. In Coors Field's illustrious history of chewing up pitchers and spitting them out, 1996 marks both the highest run scoring and the largest difference in scoring from the MLB average.
Perhaps no hitter presented more of a challenge to pitchers at Coors than Burks. In 1996, he was basically unstoppable. He appeared in every home game, hit .390/.443/.728, and went just nine starts without a hit all season. Nomo had him on a string in his final at-bat in the no-hitter:
Nomo's no-hitter was unlikely wasn't wholly unpredictable. Nomo had led the Japanese league in wins and strikeouts during his first four seasons as a professional ballplayer, starting in 1990. In 1995, he became the first Japanese-born player to pitch in the majors, and then the first to become Rookie of the Year, make an All-Star team, and pitch in the playoffs, all while dazzling the nation with his tornado-like delivery. Nomo logged a 2.54 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 1995, the best numbers of a 12-year career marked by peaks, valleys and injuries.
Unfortunately, Nomo's career was plagued by injuries. In Japan, he had endured high pitch counts and was expected to play through arm pain. After suffering a shoulder injury in 1994, his fifth year in the Japanese major leagues, he retired and used a contract loophole to jump to the United States, as Tom Verducci wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1995. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nomo struggled with consistency and durability in MLB. He underwent shoulder surgery in 2003, and finished his 12-year career in MLB with a 123-109 record and a 4.24 ERA.
During 2014 Hall of Fame voting, Nomo received just six votes and a 1.1 percent share, below the 5 percent cutoff to stay on the ballot. It's true that Nomo's career numbers pale in comparison to other Hall of Fame pitchers. On the other, the Hall exists to tell the story of the game, and that story is woefully incomplete without the pioneering Nomo, whose success paved the way for the Japanese stars of today like Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka. "I believe Japanese players are able to play in the Major Leagues because Mr. Nomo opened the door for us," former Dodger and Yankee Hiroki Kuroda said in a video tribute to Nomo in 2013.
No single game better showed just how brilliant Nomo could be than his Coors Field no-hitter. It's still the only no-no pitched at the park, and many believe it will never happen again. In 2002, the Rockies began storing game balls in a humidor—the better to keep them from drying out in the mile-high air, thereby becoming harder and traveling farther when hit. Humidor use has corresponded with a moderate drop in Coors Field offense, but the park remains a hitter's paradise. Leave it to Scully, then, to put Nomo's accomplishment in proper perspective, with a final call that still rings true:
"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."