Welcome to the “Sho.”
MLB has been struggling for decades now to keep up with the rest of the sports leagues in the popularity category. Quite frankly they’ve been falling behind at a historic pace and it has been mostly their own fault.
They struggle to market their star players, no matter how polarizing and attractive to a fan base they can be.
The media also plays a role in the way baseball is perceived, just see the Stephen A Smith comments on Ohtani earlier in the week before ESPN’s Jeff Passan gave him a hall of fame lecture to show him how he was wrong.
Went onto @FirstTake earlier today. You may have seen a short clip, but here's the whole thing.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) July 13, 2021
But sometimes, sometimes the stars align and the fans choose their generation player, their face of baseball.
We have arguably the best baseball player of all time currently playing in Mike Trout. He is on record setting pace for multiple honors and records. Yet he may as well work in a office building filing paper work because no casual fan cares about him. Trout isn’t marketable and doesn’t want to be marketed.
Meanwhile a guy who shares the same locker room as him, has the sports world electrified, gathering MLB talk during NBA Finals games. That is unprecedented in the 21st century.
Right now there are multiple faces of the game. But one stands out as he is unique. He is a breath of fresh air, despite chasing a ghost from a century ago.
He is Shohei Ohtani.
Ohtani’s pursuit of being the best two-way player the sport has seen since Babe Ruth is historic, and the world is taking notice.
Ohtani is unequivocally the most intriguing player the sports world has to offer at the moment, even if he doesn’t speak a single word in English publicly.
Nobody tunes into a sporting event to listen to what athletes have to say. It might be important, it might be noble, it might be righteous, but it is not the draw. The athlete is. What he does is. What she achieves is. Anybody who chooses to watch baseball only if Ohtani addresses the media in English instead of Japanese doesn’t deserve the joy and pleasure of watching him.
The tasks of hitting or pitching at the Major League level is extremely difficult, hence the reason these guys are paid millions to play a “kids game.” But attempting, and ultimately achieving both at an All-Star level at the same time? That is a feat which is hard to put into words. But I’ll try.
The Angels star’s ability to alternate between both is the subject of awe for hitters and pitchers alike and makes him a singular talent. Switching from different skill sets, from the attacker on the mound to the attacked at the plate, is jarring. To separate the two is at times impossible, especially in the same game. It’s a practical nightmare, with physical and mental hurdles. But the Angels have allowed him the freedom to do both, to, in the words so commonly echoed by his manager, Joe Maddon, “be a baseball player.”
What’s followed is a performance unlike any we’ve seen from other baseball players, maybe ever.
The story of Ohtani began years ago, but the legacy of Ohtani truly began this season.
It became the subject of national TV in Ohtani’s debut start of 2021, during which he whipped a fastball 101 mph and crushed a ball 115 mph before it really even set in what had just happened.
Since then Ohtani has causally dominated the sport.
Ohtani leads the majors in homers at the all-star break (33) and is the first player in major league history to hit 30 homers and steal at least 12 bases before the Midsummer Classic. Only seven players in history have hit more than his 33 first-half homers. And he is pitching to a 3.49 ERA.
This year’s All-Star Game, the 91st in major league history, was a celebration of a return to normalcy after last year’s was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic. The game has turned over once more since the last All-Star Game was played two years ago, with fresh faces leading the way. The likes of Fernando Tatis Jr. who is the most electrifying individual in the sport. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. earned All-Star Game MVP honors — at 22, he’s the youngest MVP ever — with a 486-foot moonshot in a swing that left fellow young star Tatis Jr. covering his head with his glove in disbelief.
But this All-Star Game belonged to Ohtani.
He was knocked out in the first round of the Home Run Derby on Monday night. He threw a scoreless inning and went 0 for 2 on Tuesday. He wasn’t the highlight of either event, but he was in the spotlight for all of it.
He therefore became the first player in major league history to compete in the Home Run Derby and earn a win in the All-Star Game. He became the first leadoff man to throw a 100-mph fastball in the All-Star Game. He became the first Japanese player to compete in the derby. With his mere presence, the 27-year-old Los Angeles Angels star injected new life into the kind of annual tradition that needs a jolt now and then. He’s the kind of player baseball never knew it needed until he arrived.
When fellow all-stars took selfies to remember it all, they clamored for Ohtani. When the television cameras needed somewhere to look, they often found Ohtani, who wore a mic during the game. He was a source of global fascination unlike any this sport has seen in recent memory.
His All-Star peers are in awe of the two way star. Some scratching their heads asking how?
“It’s insane,” said Giants ace Kevin Gausman, who faced Ohtani the pitcher and hitter last month. “Pitchers are always in awe of pitchers — like, they’re in awe of (Jacob) deGrom. Then you got the hitters in awe of so and so. Right now, the hitters and pitchers are all in awe of Shohei. And I feel like crap the day after I pitch. I couldn’t imagine having to go through … he’s just a specimen.”
The physical toll it takes goes without saying. Playing in 87 of 89 games thus far, pitching in every 6th, hitting basically everyday, the body has to be running on fumes right?
But somehow Ohtani shows up the next day and just keeps going, continuing to leave everyone in awe.
It’s a physical and mental grind that probably goes unparalleled. Ohtani entered the break with a combined 626 head-to-head interactions already this season (plate appearances plus batters faced). That means twice the work in addition to twice the prep, which Ohtani called “the biggest challenge.” But is there something to Ohtani benefiting from doing both, particularly in the same game?
“I learned a lot about some sequences and a lot of how I attack hitters from standing in the box and looking at that perspective,” noted Cole, who started his career in the National League with the Pirates. “So I would venture to guess he’s probably learning aspects of his craft, both on the mound and in the batter’s box, and using them together to his advantage.”
Ohtani is an obsessive player. It’s why he, as a rookie, carried around separate binders with different scouting reports as a hitter and pitcher to differentiate between the two.
Ohtani’s efforts are enough to inspire someone else to try to do the same, at the very least. Baseball sure hopes so. So the next time someone questions whether Ohtani has the opportunity to help revive the sport in a demographic that truly doesn’t care for the slow games and long term storyline of a 162 game schedule, dismiss them.
Ohtani is special. Special in ways that can attract the younger demographic which MLB so desperately needs. Being able to be a two way player, on the field at all times, eliminating the dead time will keep kids connected. After all in little league a lot of kids do this.
“At any given time, he most likely has the most power, the most velocity, the most speed on the field. To have all those attributes in one player, it’s so good for the game, and it’s inspiring to watch,” New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole said. “We don’t start as pitchers only or position players only; we all want to do both. … There’s a simplicity to him, just being able to fulfill that dream. Even as a pitcher now or as a hitter, a certain inner child in us would love to do all of it. He’s doing it.”
Maybe with Ohtani doing it at the MLB level coaches won’t start suppressing kids interests and talents at the age of 8. Maybe their love and interest for the game will grow because of Ohtani.
Baseball clings to its heroes, passes them down from generation to generation, uses them to show how things used to be and how far they have — or have not — come. Comparisons give context. In the case of Ohtani, there are none.
The closets you can come to comparing Ohtani is Babe Ruth, which is never a fair comparison to place on anyone. And even Ruth, if you were to try and compare, played a century ago. The game is drastically different, as is society and all things on earth 100 years later. You can’t really compare the ghost of Ruth to a living breathing Ohtani.
Ruth retied long before innovations in physical training and more nuanced skill training birthed an era in which a 95-mph fastball is the norm and prolific power no longer guarantees stardom. Ohtani is, in that sense, unprecedented.
Point being Ohtani is a once in a generation talent. Maybe a one of one. So enjoy the history that is being played out before your eyes. If you blink, or spend time critiquing irrelevant details, you’ll miss it.