Shohei Ohtani has more upside than any Asian athlete ever. He also has more risk than any Asian athlete ever. But why stop at Asia? The talent and dilemma of Ohtani knows no boundaries because the world of sports has rarely seen anything like him.
It is entirely possible for the 24-year-old from the tiny northeast Japanese town of Oshu to be the best hitter in baseball. It is also entirely possible for him to be the best pitcher in baseball as well.
And no one, least of all his current employer the Los Angeles Angels, has any idea if he will be either. The only thing anyone really knows is that it is going to be an absolute blast watching it all.
Ohtani’s dexterity as both a pitcher and a hitter was unprecedented and he was dubbed domestically as Nito-ryu – a two sword samurai. Every team in the major leagues wanted him, and why not.
In five seasons in Japan playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters up in Sapporo, Ohtani split his time between the outfield and pitching mound. Every four or five days he would pitch, the rest he would hit.
As dangerous a hitter as there was in Japan, he was an even more dominant pitcher. There are not many people who can throw a baseball 100 miles per hour and even fewer who can throw it 102. Japan only has one and its Ohtani.
Ohtani came to the Angels last year burdened by a massive mountain range or two of hype. The only adjective baseball had left in the book for him was Ruthian, as in Babe Ruth – the single most storied name in the history of a historic game.
In Japan, they usually overthrow their pitchers and that’s a large reason why the then 23-year-old Ohtani, well on his way to a prolific season pitching, suffered a Grade 3 tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
He would need what is commonly referred to as Tommy John, surgery which meant he would not pitch again until 2020 at the earliest. But his swing in the batter box was not affected by the tear, so they let him hit for a bit before shutting it down for surgery.
Ohtani would hit 22 home runs in limited action and go on to win American League Rookie of the year.
This past week he returned to action after recovering from surgery, but only as a hitter. There are now calls from some to have him either pitch or hit. But it’s a moot argument for a guy who can’t pitch right now anyway and who also became the first man since Ruth 100 years ago to make 10 pitching appearances and hit 20 home runs.
Ruth, of course, is simply known as the Sultan of Swat only because the Boston Red Sox took the ball out of the Babe’s hands when he was 25 or so and told him to concentrate on the bat. Up to that point, he was one of the best pitchers in the game and still has a few all-time postseason pitching records. It was most definitely the correct call.
Boston would ship the Babe off to New York and change the course of American sports history. Babe sat front row center in the Yankees Murderers Row and became must-see theater. He almost single-handedly made baseball the national pastime and took it to places in the country’s consciousness it had never been.
Ruth transcended his game, he was pop culture and gave baseball the bump it needed. Almost 100 years later, baseball needs a bump again. Recent massive TV deals have inflated the game’s net worth. Attendance is down and so are TV numbers.
But more importantly, where is the buzz, baseball? The real fans are still there, of course, because baseball is sublime. But in the world of entertainment and constant stimuli, the NBA and the NFL bury baseball.
Ohtani’s teammate Mike Trout is in the midst of one of the greatest careers in the history of the game and yet he may as well be in a witness protection program. Great guy, electric game but no buzz because baseball fans are watching Mike Trout. Sports fans are watching Shohei Ohtani.
It’s not just his game that invokes Ruth, it’s the awe he inspires as well. He hits balls that stay hit before landing in parts of the stadium that have never been seen on TV before. His first home run two days ago in Minnesota inspired a slack jaw epidemic.
Country strong and fluid, his swing is the nexus of power and poetry. Ohtani is a strapping farm boy from upcountry Iwate prefecture. There is no Tokyo neon in him and that only heightens his wholesome appeal in Japan. Everywhere you go in the country, you see Ohtani-san’s image plastered from floor to ceiling.
His wholesome appeal should be a massive boost to baseball, not only in the US but globally as well. It’s not in his shy, respectful nature to be caught out on TMZ in a drunken fit in a club at five in the morning.
He doesn’t need that kind of crossover notoriety to garner the clicks when he has crossover talent. Ohtani is not the only baseball star in the ascendancy right now, either.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ 20-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr debuted a few weeks back and not only does he have the right bloodlines as the son of a Hall of Famer, he has generational hitting talent as well. His first two home runs in San Francisco this week were historical preludes.
Born in Canada and raised in the Dominican Republic, Guerrero should be a marketing anchor in both North America and Latin America for a decade or two. “Vladito” will certainly fortify baseball’s core support, but Ohtani will grow it because as great as Guerrero can be, he does not throw a pitch 102 miles an hour.
If all goes well, Ohtani should be back on the pitching mound next year. The success rate of comebacks from Tommy John surgery is extremely high and often players return better than before. That would be a very scary thought for someone as imposing as Ohtani. Scary, indeed, but damn riveting as well – anywhere and everywhere.
Tim Noonan is a writer based in Bangkok and Toyko, covering sports and culture. Follow him on twitter @T_NoonanEast