Katsuhiro Maeda has Hideo Nomo's fastball and his blessing.
And though it won't be known for several years whether Maeda can match what Nomo did last season as NL Rookie of the Year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Yankees thought enough to sign him for $1.5 million.As of Friday, when the club introduced him at a news conference at Yankee Stadium, Meada, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound right-hander, is more of a project than a pitcher. But armed with a 98-mph fastball, the 24-year-old was anxious to join Nomo as the second Japanese player in the major leagues.
"I talked (to Nomo) for a while last winter," Maeda said through agent/interpreter Don Nomura, who also is Nomo's representative. "Nomo talked about his experience. He told me it was great."
Nomura said Maeda and Nomo didn't talk about the crush of media attention that followed Nomo's every move last season. More than 60 members of the Japanese media traveled regularly with the Dodgers and at least that many attended Friday's news conference.
But Nomura is confident Maeda, who has dyed his hair red and goes by the nickname "Kats," will become a fan favorite when he finally makes the big leagues.
"Everyone is different," Nomura said. "But playing baseball in America has always been his dream."
Getting here wasn't easy. Maeda held out this winter after playing parts of three ineffective seasons with the Seibu Lions in the Japanese Pacific League. Although the Yankees project him as a starter, Maeda was a relief pitcher with control and attitude problems in Japan.
Maeda also was unpopular with the Japanese media, which surprised the popular Nomo. After six months of negotiations that included the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants, the Lions finally completed a cash deal that brought Maeda to the Yankees for $350,000.
"It must have been tough for him," Nomo said Thursday in Los Angeles. "He had to wait for about five months. He went through a lot and I respect him for that. He never gave up. It's quite strange. He did it without support."
The Yankees will send Maeda to their minor league complex in Tampa, Fla., for conditioning, then place him with the Yankees' short-season Class A club in Oeneota, N.Y. Maeda said he hopes to be in the majors within two years.
Maeda is still untested, walking 41 batters in 372/3 innings with the Lions. But the Yankees, who started tracking Maeda during the 1994 winter league in Hawaii, couldn't get over the velocity of his pitches.