He is “Frankenstein” who takes baseball by storm and follows in the legendary footsteps of Babe Ruth – but the Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani is still humble enough to pick up rubbish.
Ohtani became Major League Baseball’s biggest star this season after a breakthrough campaign with the Los Angeles Angels and is a fervent favorite to win an MVP award.
Not since Ruth a century ago has there been a baseball player who is able to hit and hit on a regular basis – most players do one thing or another – with the 27-year-old Ohtani admiring fans with his skill on the mound and dominance on the plate.
Time magazine named Ohtani among its 100 most influential people in 2021 and former New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez said Ohtani was already a more complete player than Ruth.
“If you were to Frankenstein all the unique talent of a player, you would 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 mind, and always takes the time to talk to fans and journalists.
Ohtani is incessantly polite and regularly clears trash from Angel’s dugout.
“I do not want anyone, including myself, to be injured in avoidable accidents,” he recently told reporters.
Tokyo-based author Robert Whiting, who has written several books on Japanese baseball, says Ohtani is “too good to be true.”
“He does not care much about money,” said Whiting, author of the new book “Tokyo Junkie.”
“He’s a purist – he just wants to be the greatest baseball player who’s ever lived, and it’s just so refreshing.”
– National pride –
Ohtani was a prodigy from high school from northern Japan who initially wanted to skip the domestic league and go 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 prevented the first years in the majors, but he missed only four of the team’s 162 games in the 2021 season and hit 46 home runs – just two under the MLB leadership.
Despite his heroism with bats and ball – including the launch of fast balls at over 100 km / h – the angels missed the playoffs.
It is no surprise that Ohtani’s every move is headline news back in Japan and his achievements are a matter of national pride.
“Many Japanese are shy, and that culture does not always fit so well,” 25-year-old Akira Kioka told AFP outside the Tokyo Dome Stadium where Ohtani once hit a ball so hard that it stuck to the ceiling.
“So it’s great that he’s found his place and that he’s so loved in another country.”
Ohtani is not the first Japanese player to succeed in MLB, with Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui all having a great impact over the years.
But Whiting says that Ohtani, who is more than 190 cm and weighs 95 kg, changes his perception of what a Japanese athlete should look like, and gives a “big boost to the national ego”.
“When you look at Ohtani, the image of the Japanese as physically smaller or inferior people disappears,” Whiting said.
“He has set a new standard for Japanese, and everyone feels very good about it. He just makes people proud to be Japanese.”
Whiting believes Ohtani can continue to play for “at least another 10 years”, and the player himself believes he can reach “higher levels” yet.
– If I learn to throw with more confidence and perform consistently over an entire year, I am sure I will have a better season, Ohtani told reporters after the Angels’ last game of the season.
amk / sah / pst / qan