TOKYO: He’s the “Frankenstein” taking baseball by storm and following in the legendary footsteps of Babe Ruth — but Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani is still humble enough to pick up litter. Ohtani this season became Major League Baseball’s biggest star after a breakthrough campaign with the Los Angeles Angels and is a red-hot favorite to win an MVP award. Not since Ruth a century ago has there been a baseball player capable of pitching and hitting on a regular basis — most players do one or the other — with the 27-year-old Ohtani wowing fans with his skill on the mound and dominance at the plate.
Time magazine named Ohtani among its 100 most influential people of 2021 and former New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez said that Ohtani was already a more complete player than Ruth. “If you were to Frankenstein every unique talent into one player, you’d get Shohei Ohtani,” Rodriguez wrote. But there is more to Ohtani’s magnetic appeal than just sublime athletic ability. He melts hearts with his megawatt smile and sunny disposition, always taking time to talk to fans and reporters. Ohtani is unstintingly polite and regularly clears up rubbish from the Angels dugout. “I don’t want anyone, including myself, to be hurt in preventable accidents,” he recently explained to reporters.
Tokyo-based author Robert Whiting, who has written several books on Japanese baseball, says that Ohtani is “too good to be true”. “He doesn’t care about the money that much,” said Whiting, author of the new book “Tokyo Junkie”. “He’s a purist — he just wants to be the greatest baseball player that ever lived and it’s just so refreshing.”
Ohtani was a high-school prodigy from northern Japan who initially wanted to skip the domestic league and head straight to the majors. Instead, he signed with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2013 and spent five seasons there before joining the Angels. Injuries hampered his first few years in the majors, but he missed only four of his team’s 162 games in the 2021 season and hit 46 home runs — just two short of the MLB lead. Despite his heroics with bat and ball — including launching fastballs at over 100 mph — the Angels missed out on the playoffs.
It’s no surprise that Ohtani’s every move is headline news back in Japan and his achievements a matter of national pride. “A lot of Japanese people are shy, and that culture doesn’t always fit in so well,” 25-year-old fan Akira Kioka told AFP outside Tokyo Dome — the stadium where Ohtani once hit a ball so hard it got stuck in the ceiling. “So it’s great that he has found his place and that he’s so loved in a different country.”
Ohtani is not the first Japanese player to succeed in MLB, with Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui all having made a big impact over the years. But Whiting says Ohtani, who is 6ft 4ins (more than 190 cm) and weighs 210 pounds (95 kg), is changing perceptions of what a Japanese athlete should look like, and providing a “huge boost to national ego”. “When you look at Ohtani, the image of the Japanese as physically smaller or inferior people just disappears,” Whiting said. “He’s set a new standard for Japanese, and everybody feels really good about it. He just makes people proud to be Japanese.”
Whiting believes Ohtani can keep playing for “at least another 10 years”, and the player himself thinks he can reach “higher levels” yet. “If I learn to pitch with more confidence and perform consistently over a full year, I’m sure I’ll have a better season,” Ohtani told reporters after the Angels’ final game of the season. – AFP