Tom Keegan: Angels slugger, power pitcher Shohei Ohtani riveting baseball fans across the globe
photo by: Charlie Riedel (Associated Press)
Kansas City, Mo. — Nothing about the Shohei Ohtani story, the most intriguing baseball tale in decades, can be described as typical.
Not the way he is used, both as a starting pitcher and designated hitter.
Not the frequency with which he is used, once a week as a pitcher, and what usually amounts to three days on, three days off, as a hitter.
Not the way such graceful, fluid movements produce such prodigious power as both thrower and masher of pitched baseballs.
Not the outrageously successful start to his Major League Baseball rookie season at the age of 23.
I read of his winning debut as a pitcher, one in which he lasted six innings, yielded three hits, walked one batter and struck out six, and then of his hitting a home run in three consecutive games. So I just had to see him for myself, first on TV, then in person.
Few things rank as high on my must-watch viewing as Sunday at the Masters, especially with as star-studded a leader board as this year’s. So I set the DVR to record that, figuring I would catch a few innings of Ohtani’s second outing as a pitcher and then switch to golf.
Ohtani had me from the first pitch and never let go. It was as much the how as the what of his masterpiece that made it impossible to change the channel.
The flawless, seemingly effortless delivery consistently produced radar-gun readings of 97, 98, 99. And the split-finger fastball, which coming out of the hand looks to a hitter like a fastball, but is nearly 10 mph slower and drops severely at the last instant, gives hitters two ways to miss it: Anticipating a fastball, they are way out in front of it, and then it dips way beneath the barrel of the bat. The pitch has a distinct video-game quality to it, too elastic to seem real.
Ohtani lost his bid for a perfect game against the Oakland A’s that day with one out in the seventh, an inning in which he allowed a single and a walk and escaped with his 12th strikeout on the final pitch of his seven innings of shutout ball.
Veteran Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a big-league catcher for 13 seasons and not one given to bold, hyperbolic statements, called it “as good a game as you could ever see pitched.”
I interviewed Scoscia many times about pitchers in the second half of the 1980’s, covering the Dodgers for the Orange County Register. I caught up with him in the visiting manager’s office before Friday night’s game in Kauffman Stadium and chatted with him about Ohtani.
“You know what it was like?” Scioscia said from his desk in the manager’s office of the visiting clubhouse. “It was like playing Wiffle ball with your brother who’s 5 years older than you and is standing from here to that wall from you, throwing as hard as he can.”
In other words, virtually unhittable.
In Japan, starting pitchers work once a week. To ease Ohtani’s transition, the Angels are doing the same, at least for now. Smart. Ohtani’s next start is today against the Royals, possibly with snow flakes falling.
Ohtani’s first career triple, with the bases loaded, came in the Angels’ 7-1 victory Friday night at The K. His first career double, to the opposite field, came during a 2-for-4 day at the plate Friday. He scored the winning run, tagging from third on a sacrifice fly in the Angels’ come-from-behind 5-4 triumph.
Instead of watching Friday from the press box, I was a guest of a friend in a seat in the stands, seven rows behind the Angels’ dugout. As my good fortune would have it, the three spectators seated directly to my left, Section 121, Row G, Seats 3 through 6, were Japanese women who spend the school year at Emporia State and return home to Japan for the summer. They said they purchased the tickets online for $81 apiece.
Aoi Haga, of Tokyo, Yuki Yoshida, of Kyoto, and Sanami Yamada, of Niigata, not only greatly enhanced the game experience for nearby spectators, they unwittingly and indirectly served as a reminder that nothing about Ohtani’s story resembles typical.
The moment Ohtani popped out of the dugout toward the on-deck circle, the three young women — Ohtani-acs for an evening — rapidly and with high-pitched voices sent a stream of Japanese words in his direction while holding up a Japanese flag.
It called to mind the days of Beatlemania.
Then, midway through the game, one of the Kansas City police officers on duty paid a quick visit to the women and informed them that Angels dugout had called up and asked that they keep it “down a little” when Ohtani is at the plate because he found it distracting.
“But they love him,” a nearby fan protested.
The officer, presenting in a friendly, nonthreatening manner the entire time, agreed and suggested the best way to show him love would be to let him concentrate at the plate and then shower him with affection after he hits the ball. That was what the Ohtani-acs did after the initial shock of being spoken to by a police officer wore off.
As a show of support, fans seated nearby borrowed the flag, held it up and cheered loudly for Ohtani when he returned to the plate.
Thinking about the odd request, I flashed back nearly 40 years to a day I was walking in Barcelona, Spain. The air was filled with Spanish voices and other city noises and all I could hear were English words spoken in an American accent in the distance. I could have been walking in front of a car and not heard a blaring horn. I was that keyed in on the English words. I wondered if perhaps Ohtani’s focus so lasered in on the Japanese words that it stole too much of his concentration from the task at hand: locking in on the pitch.
The unusual taming of passion in the stands did not deter Ohtani’s fan club from letting loose for him when he slid into home plate with what stood up as the winning run.
Haga interpreted to English what messages she and her friends were sending Ohtani’s way.
“Ohtani, we came here for you, so please do well,” Haga said. “You can do that.”
And when he stood on second base after hitting a double?
“Good job,” Haga said. “Simple stuff.”
Haga said she bought the flag on Amazon “for about 10 bucks,” and brought it to the World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium in March 2017, when she was visiting a friend in Los Angeles. She said she figured waving the flag would improve her chances of being shown on TV.
“And it did,” she said and looked toward her phone. “And it did again today. My mother told me we were on TV in Japan. They showed us after Ohtani ran the bases.”
Angels games are broadcast live in Tokyo, which is 14 hours ahead of Central time, and throughout Japan.
After Friday’s game, I asked Ohtani through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara if he could hear his personal cheering section behind the dugout.
Unlike many athletes who need help with interviews in English, Ohtani looks the questioner in the eye when responding, instead of looking at the interpreter.
“I heard it and I’m thankful for the cheer,” Ohtani said through Mizuhara. “But at the plate, I like to focus and block out all the noise.”
Had he heard about the request passed along to his boisterous supporters?
“Yes, I was aware of that,” Ohtani said in Japanese. “I’m not the one who asked for it, but I think they just did it so everyone could focus at the plate. So I’m thankful for that also.”
Nobody has hit and pitched with the similar prowess since Babe Ruth in 1918 and 1919 for the Boston Red Sox, before he was dealt to the Yankees and focused on becoming the game’s most dominant player with his powerful bat.
A striking figure at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Ohtani could pass for a movie star. He bats left, throws right and is off to an equally impressive start in both disciplines.
Despite batting in just six of the Angels’ 15 games, he headed into Saturday tied with superstar Mike Trout for the team lead in RBI with 11 and was batting .367 with a team-best OPS of 1.191.
He takes every bit as flashy pitching numbers into today’s start: 2-0, 2.08 ERA, 13 innings, four hits, two walks, 18 strikeouts.
Ohtani was not interested in signing with any MLB team that wasn’t interested in letting him help with both his arm and bat, which simply isn’t done in Major League Baseball. Until now.
His every move is dissected. Several Japanese reporters follow the Angels across the country and chronicle his every move. Friday night, inquiring minds wanted to know why Scioscia liked Ohtani batting seventh in the lineup.
“I’d like him in every spot in the order,” Scioscia said. “We want Shohei to get his feet wet. It’s his first go around seeing these pitchers and he’s doing very well. I think it makes our lineup incredibly deep when you have him hitting down a little lower. The guys are swinging the bats up in front and maybe can set the table for him. We’re going to walk before we run, but he’s going to be in the lineup swinging the bat as much as we can get him in there.”
The Angels are mindful of not throwing too much at Ohtani too quickly. It will take discipline on the part of the organization to maintain that stance because of how well Ohtani is making the adjustment.
“He’s just all about baseball,” Scioscia said of Ohtani, a bachelor who does not have a driver’s license. “He wants to be as good as he can possibly be. He’s a meticulous learner and he absorbs things really quickly. And if he’s not studying a pitcher, he’s playing video games.”
At the same time, Ohtani has a personality that transcends the language barrier. It’s obvious he’s at ease with people.
“He laughs a lot,” Scioscia said. “We had a lot of fun with him in the spring.”
For baseball fans worldwide, the fun has just begun.