baseball

Shohei Ohtani and the quest to rewrite baseball’s record books

Everybody in the United States and Japan is talking about Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese baseball player who migrated to America and hit his major-league-leading 42nd home run Monday.

In his fourth season, Ohtani was the first man in history to be selected for the midseason Major League Baseball All-Star Game as both a pitcher (voted in by the players) and a batter (voted in by the fans), and to take part in the home run derby as well. This has never happened before.

Ohtani has been getting blanket press coverage in North America throughout the year and, more often than not, is on the front page of one or more of the popular sports dailies in Japan while the highlights of his games are invariably shown on the widely watched 7 p.m. NHK nationwide newscast.

One headline in The New York Times last month asked: “Shohei Ohtani ‘the New Babe Ruth,’ or Something Entirely New?” Another headline in USA Today proclaimed: “Give Shohei Ohtani all the awards after what he did last night.”

Perhaps the most impressive piece about Ohtani was a 5,300-word article in The Athletic titled “Shohei Ohtani is ‘in his own world’… which appears to be somewhere beyond baseball’s outer limits.” The profile described the 27-year-old superstar as “something close to the ideal Japanese player… a baseballing monk… a man who represents everything that’s good about the Japanese approach to baseball.”

“To watch Ohtani swing a bat is to see a hitter who has mastered the two most important elements of the craft: technical expertise and creative genius — the science and the art,” the piece added. “Ohtani has what master swordsmen call “edge alignment,” the ability to guide his weapon to the baseball at the ideal angle to maximize power and distance. He also has the ability to improvise.”

He is everything, all at once, a physical marvel and a thinking man, a supreme talent and a grunt worker, a pitcher and a hitter, and it is no small thing that he is often one of the biggest players on the field.”

According to Japanese filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki, director of the acclaimed documentary “Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams” about Japan’s National High School Baseball Tournament, Ohtani’s talent and achievements have become a huge source of pride for the Japanese people. “He’s kind of like an American version of a Japanese player,” she said.

To do what Ohtani has done this season doing requires extraordinary athletic talent. It demands an arm that can throw 100 mph and a swing that can launch baseballs 450 feet. It requires a player who will make a total 100% commitment to his craft, spending nights alone and keeping piles of notebooks on every aspect of the game. Ohtani is a man who, as he has said, wants nothing less than to be the greatest baseball player ever, anywhere.

The better Ohtani performs, the higher his popularity is. Attendance for Angels games, at home and on the road, has spiked this season. Ohtani may well be the most popular player in the major leagues.

He is also one of the most underpaid — on the first year of a two-year contract worth $8.5 million — all because of a decision he made to spend five years with the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League after graduating from high school, instead of going straight to the U.S. That decision is now costing him a staggering amount of money.

To give you an example, Ohtani is recognized now to be on par with teammate Mike Trout, heretofore considered by most baseball observers to be the best player in MLB, but who has spent much of this year’s season on the injured list. Ohtani may now even be surpassing Trout with his value as a pitcher, hitter, and drawing card.

Justin Upton, a teammate who has spent five seasons playing with the Angels, has deemed Ohtani the “most talented player I’ve ever seen.” However, Trout, 30, makes a whopping $37 million a year, as befitting his status, while Ohtani is only making $3 million this season and $5 million in 2022.

If Ohtani had gone straight from high school to the U.S., and played a year or two or three in the minors, he probably would have made the majors by 2016 and now be a free agent. One can reasonably assume that Ohtani would have been in the same ballpark financially as Trout. Instead, he made just $650,000 in 2019), and $700,000 in 2020.

Back in 2012, the Fighters made a presentation to Ohtani and his family depicting the negative aspects of being a minor leaguer in the U.S., including miserable 12-hour bus rides and sharing tiny apartments with teammates. By staying in Sapporo, Ohtani could instead live in the Fighter’s new player dormitory where he could concentrate on honing his craft and be in regular touch with friends and family. It was a convincing argument.

But with those five years under his belt in the U.S., Ohtani would have been in a different stratosphere financially by now, without question, having given up an estimated $100 million in salary and bonuses. Ohtani is raking in more than any other MLB player in endorsements — worth an estimated $6 million a year — led by deals with Japan Airlines, UFJ Bank, and Seiko Watch. Still, that pales in comparison to the $34 million Naomi Osaka earned in sponsorships over the last 12 months.

Then again, part of Ohtani’s unique charm is that he doesn’t care about money. In fact, he is notoriously picky about his endorsements, not wanting the distraction. In a game in which everyone seems consumed by greed and entitlement, he is a purist — a warrior monk — who only cares about becoming the best baseball player in history.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Seibu Lions star who joined the Boston Red Sox in 2007 as a highly paid free agent, arrived in Boston with an entourage befitting Elvis Presley and perks that included a personal trainer and his very own hyperbaric chamber. Masahiro Tanaka rented a jumbo jet to fly himself and his entourage to the U.S. to join the NY Yankees in 2014.

Shohei Ohtani, by contrast, rents a small apartment near the Angels Stadium parking lot. He lives alone, eats alone, and spends his free time improving his baseball skills and studying English.

Babe Ruth, considered by many to be the greatest baseball player of all time, found playing both pitcher and outfield to be a hindrance. He did it for parts of two seasons with the Red Sox and then gave it up. Save for some later mound cameos for the Yankees. Ruth had expressed doubts that anyone could do both in an interview with the writer F.C. Lane of Baseball Magazine in late 1918

“I don’t think a man can pitch in his regular turn, and play every other game at some other position, and keep that pace year after year,” Ruth was quoted as saying, “I can do it this season all right, and not feel it, for I am young and strong and don’t mind the work. But I wouldn’t guarantee to do it for many seasons.”

Ruth was right in some respects. The Designated Hitter rule hadn’t been invented when Ruth was playing and playing a defensive position while maintaining a spot in the pitching rotation is still unrealistic.

“Pitching is hard work on the arm and body and rest is necessary for health and recovery,” said Mike Maddux, the noted pitching coach now with the St. Louis Cardinals, in a recent interview. “To tax Ohtani’s arm by having him playing the outfield isn’t worth the risk. Certainly, the Angels would regret losing their best pitcher/hitter by overusing his arm, legs, and body. Again the risk is not worth the reward.”

Los Angeles can thank the heavens the DH rule exists. With it, Shohei Ohtani will rewrite the record books.

Robert Whiting is a Tokyo-based journalist and author of books including “You Gotta Have Wa,” and “Tokyo Underworld.” His memoir “Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys… and Baseball” was published this year. This is the first installment of a two-part feature on Shohei Ohtani. The second part “Shohei Ohtani and the history of Japan” will be published on Sunday.

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