It would be tempting to suggest that his appearance in Seattle this weekend is the lounge act for next week’s MLB All-Star Game in Denver. But Shohei Ohtani doesn’t do lounge acts.
He’s the headliner wherever he goes. Stadiums. Restaurants. Bathrooms.
At Coors Field, he’ll be in the Home Run Derby Monday. Tuesday, he’ll be in the American League lineup, as well as on the mound. By Wednesday, if we’re lucky, he’ll be baseball commissioner too.
No modern player has done such things. And once he does them well, it will certify him as the premier global athlete of 2021 — even before the feats of the Summer Olympics in his native land of Japan.
Ohtani and his oh-by-the-way Angels teammates are in T-ball Park Friday, Saturday and Sunday to face the Mariners, who had a 4-0 bounce-back win (box) Thursday against the New York Yankees, thanks mostly to a bit of brilliance from rookie RHP Logan Gilbert ( seven innings, one hit, eight strikeouts, no walks).
But the Mariners, as with the rest of baseball, are mere supernumeraries in this jock opera.
Ohtani this weekend won’t have a turn on the mound — pity — but he will have four or so plate appearances each game as DH. If you’re a baseball fan, you should honor the urge to go at least once, just to say you saw in person the guy who is having the greatest individual season in the history of baseball.
“He’s in the middle of it,” Angels manager Joe Maddon told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t deny that.
“It’s happening, it’s happening, and it think it’s going to get to the point where . . . even non-baseball fans become baseball fans just to watch him.”
Ohtani has homers in 12 of his past 20 games (15 total) , including one Wednesday in a win over Boston that gave him 32 for the season, tops in MLB. The night before, he pitched seven innings to beat the Red Sox. Without injured Mike Trout, the Angels have won eight of their past 10, including two of three from each of the Red Sox and Yanks. Ohtani is the main reason.
After the latest homer surpassed Hideki Matsui’s record for most in a season by a Japanese player, the former Yankees slugger released a statement.
“I was once considered a long ball hitter in the majors, but I believe that he truly is a long ball hitter,” Matsui said. “Furthermore, he is an amazing pitcher. He exceeds what is considered conventional for a major league player, and there is no one else like him. I hope he continues his success this season as he carries the hopes and dreams of many fans and young children. As a baseball fan myself, I can’t wait to see what he is able to do next.”
The astonishing power Ohtani generates with the torque in his 6-4, 210-pound body is why the Home Run Derby in Denver’s thin air threatens to convert into an instant Marvel Comics superpower movie.
On the mound, Ohtani is 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA, 87 strikeouts and 35 walks. Only Babe Ruth in 1919 for the Red Sox pitched and hit at a comparably high level. It took a century and a man from another land to find his equal.
Unlike the arrival from Japan in 2001 of Ichiro, who had his share of skeptics about his transition to MLB, everyone knew Ohtani was going to succeed. Especially the Mariners.
In 2017, they thought they had an inside track to win Ohtani’s services, given Ichiro’s success and an ownership group that still retained Japanese video-game giant Nintendo as investors. The club had at least one Japanese player on the roster since 1998.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto traded four prospects for other teams’ international-slot money, nearly up to the maximum allowed of $3.5 million. The Mariners were ready to pay his Japanese club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, a $20 million posting fee, plus whatever it took to get Ohtani to sign a six-year contract.
In the 2017 debut of a Mariners podcast, The Wheelhouse, Dipoto candidly disclosed his aggressive pitch to Ohtani:
“We want to sell the Seattle experience. What it means to the Japanese-American, our culture and how this organization has trended — and trended so positively — when we have a star Japanese player. And make no mistake — this is a star Japanese player. He’s talented. He’s gifted. He’s going to make some team a lot better.
“We have made no bones about it in talking to other clubs. We’ve gathered as much as we can . . . We are not going to leave a stone unturned in the efforts to do it again if the opportunity exists. We’ll be responsible in how we do it, but we understand that this is a one-time buying opportunity, and you have to be prepared.
To me, the worst thing we can be is sitting on the sideline, being too conservative — sitting on our hands when an opportunity to change the history of your organization comes along, because that’s what this might be.”
Not only didn’t the pitch work, Ohtani ended up with a division rival and Dipoto’s former employer, where things didn’t end well for him. And the Mariners organization’s history has yet to change.
Ohtani wasn’t very candid about why he chose the Angels, nor did he comment on the spurned suitors, of which the Mariners were said to be among seven finalists. But speculation on both sides of the Pacific suggested that Ohtani didn’t want to be in the shadow of Ichiro’s legacy in Seattle.
Makes sense. At 23, perhaps Ohtani didn’t think he would end up towering over all of baseball, not just Ichiro. Now at a just-turned 27 — Ichiro’s age in his rookie year when he was the AL Most Valuable Player — Ohtani is at the age sports physiologists sometimes say is the apex for many world-class athletes.
The Mariners see him three times this weekend, then watch him in Denver, then go to Anaheim for three games with the Angels after the break.
Ohtani overload is underway.
Said Maddon: “It’s really special to watch … it’s fascinating.”
If Mariners fans squint hard, maybe they can imagine him in blue.