Amid the Mania, Shohei Ohtani, Like Mike Trout, Tries to Limit the Distractions
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s this thing that happens when Shohei Ohtani comes to the plate, something that doesn’t happen with anyone else. Not for Mike Trout. Not for Bryce Harper. Not for anyone.
Hoards of people—both Angels and Royals fans this past weekend—pull out their smartphones and record entire at-bats. It’s something that has rarely happened since the home run-bashing days of Barry Bonds or the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. Everyone is always expecting something special to happen whenever Ohtani steps onto a baseball field.
In many ways, this defies all logic, especially in a sport like baseball in which even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times. But here we are, nearly three weeks into the season, and the rookie Ohtani is doing something equally as impressive as trying to become a starting pitcher and designated hitter: He’s suspending rationality and making fans both young and old reconsider what is possible in baseball.
This is just the beginning of Ohtani mania.
Three weeks ago, as spring training came to a close, the buzz was that Ohtani wasn’t ready, with scouts saying in a story by Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan that the 23-year-old was basically a high school hitter, that he should start the season in the minor leagues after he hit .125 with no extra-base hits in 32 at-bats and posted a 27.00 ERA in 2⅔ innings as a pitcher in the Cactus League.
Now, Ohtani boasts a .367/.424/.767 slash line as a designated hitter. His slugging percentage would place him atop all qualified hitters if he had the requisite number of at-bats. This, all while posting a 2.08 ERA and 1.75 FIP as a pitcher and taking a perfect game into the seventh inning in the second start of his major league career. One scout tells Bleacher Report he sees the Angels star being a top five pitcher in all of baseball. Another says he sees former Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Shawn Green in Ohtani at the plate.
“I think I just got better,” Ohtani said recently through translator Ippei Mizuhara. “I think I grew as a player, maybe?”
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Everyone is trying to get a glimpse of that player now, so much so that two Royals fans Thursday booed their own team when Ned Yost called for an intentional walk of Ohtani. The chatter created by his mere presence enlivens the ballpark. Before his first batting practice session in Kansas City, eager Royals fans asked every reporter who walked by when Ohtani was coming out for batting practice. There wasn’t a spot at Kauffman Stadium, from the concourse to the press box to the bathrooms, where you could avoid overhearing someone talking about baseball’s newest star as if he’s Voldemort looming over Hogwarts.
And while American baseball fans have devoured every Ohtani highlight in sight, the spotlight is even brighter in Japan, where many of the news broadcasts lead with the exploits of their country’s biggest sporting star. Nearly 120 Japanese reporters flooded to Oakland and Anaheim to watch Ohtani’s first two pitching starts, and nearly 30 followed him to Kansas City, asking manager Mike Scioscia and pitching coach Charles Nagy about everything from his splitter usage to the tape on his fingertip, hoping for any news bite they can relay back to Japan. One reporter busy refilling a soda in the press box nearly tripped over himself sprinting back to his seat when he realized Ohtani was at the plate, spilling soda and ice all over the carpet in the process.
“There’s a lot of pictures being taken, a lot of media everywhere,” says Angels second baseman Ian Kinsler, who experienced similar media coverage in Texas with Yu Darvish’s arrival in 2012. “It really hasn’t mattered what city we’ve been in, there’s always going to be a surplus of media here to watch. There’s nothing different for me. I’ve just got to answer a couple more questions here or there.”
The questions being asked of Ohtani are managed carefully. He doesn’t speak before games, and there are no one-on-one interviews. He meets with the media only after games in which he appears. And when he does, there are generally no pleasantries exchanged. He speaks while standing up, his hands behind his back, hand in hand, posture pristine. The Japanese media knows little about his personal life, which differs from the media buzz around Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka, both of whom had married Japanese celebrities. Saeko, an actress, was Darvish’s wife. Matsuzaka’s wife is TV journalist Tomoyo Shibata.
Among the major stories for the Japanese media in Kansas City was Passan’s acknowledgement that he was wrong about Ohtani in his article in spring training headlined “The verdict is in on Shohei Ohtani’s bat and it’s not good.” A flurry of Japanese media outlets rushed to interview Passan over the course of the series, and an interview clip appeared on a Japanese variety show. “You’ve become very famous in Japan in the last couple of days,” one Japanese media member tells Passan, who has reacted to the attention self-deprecatingly.
“This isn’t going to be the last time I’m wrong,” Passan says with a laugh.
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
While the hype surrounding Ohtani feels similar to the hysteria that surrounded the arrivals of Matsuzaka and then Darvish, there’s a striking calm to his presence. During the Angels’ four days in Kansas City, Ohtani arrives to the stadium in the same outfit each time: a dark blue denim shirt with a wide collar, slim black dress pants and black shoes. He has no entourage, and his parents have been following him in the early part of the season. This is the same guy who, despite making millions of dollars in Japan, lived in the team dormitory for his five years with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, never bought a car or had a driver’s license and had his mother handle his money, receiving a reported $1,000 from his parents every month.
Quelling the hype around his arrival in the United States appears to have been a strategy from the beginning. According to multiple sources, one of the factors that attracted Ohtani to the Angels was the demeanor of Mike Trout, the team’s biggest star. Ohtani related to the center fielder’s lack of interest in being a mainstream star beyond baseball. Trout’s all-baseball, only-baseball mentality resonated with him.
Ohtani also did not want to go to a team with whom a Japanese star had previously signed, hoping to avoid all comparisons with his fellow countrymen. He and the Angels have tried to minimize the number of distractions, but that has proved impossible.
Friday night, three college exchange students from Japan sat behind the Angels dugout with their country’s flag, screaming and yelling at Ohtani as if they were at a concert. A security guard approached with a request from the dugout: “Could you keep it down when Ohtani is batting?” he asked.
“He heard them, and he’s thankful for the cheers,” Mizuhara translates for Ohtani. “But at the plate, he likes to focus and block out the noise.”
Ohtani, however, says he wasn’t the one who requested the quiet.
“I was aware of that, but I wasn’t the one who asked for that,” Ohtani says through Mizuhara. “We just did it so everyone could focus at the plate. I was thankful for that.”
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Reason suggests Ohtani’s incredibly fast start will slow down at some point. But in the meantime, he has said he would like to play more frequently. Last week, there was a four-day stretch in which he had one at-bat. And he’s scheduled to make a pitching start once a week. Scioscia says the team is using Ohtani as much as it should.
“What do you want? To pitch him four days a week? Where are we going with this?” Scioscia said. “We’re going to err on the side of caution, and if it evolves into something else, we’ll have him in our rotation on the pitching side and we’ll see where Shohei lies on the offensive side. The thing about us holding back is wrong.”
What isn’t holding back is the hype that will continue to follow Ohtani from city to city, where he will be the main attraction for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, he’ll be seen as the guy from Japan who is trying to do what only Babe Ruth did in the major leagues: succeed as a pitcher and hitter.
Everyone is taking notice. After it was announced that Sunday’s game was postponed because of frigid weather, Ohtani met with the media outside the Angels clubhouse. As he spoke, an elderly Japanese woman in Royals garb emerged from the home plate luxury club, which is in the same hallway as the clubhouse. When she noticed Ohtani, peeking out of the top of the crowd, her eyes widened as if she’d seen a ghost.
“Ohtani-san!” she said, pointing at the media scrum. “Ohtani-san!”
“Ma’am, you can’t stay here,” one of the security guards said. “Please exit through the stairs.”
The woman continued to walk, one inch per step, staring at Ohtani as the guard implored her to exit the hallway, her husband nudging her from behind. Finally, she reached the stairs before stopping to turn around, staring through the door to get one last glimpse of the man at the center of the mania.
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April 17, 2018 at 05:46AM