No one’s going to admit to it now, but over the past few years a lot of people argued that Los Angeles Angels slugger-pitcher Shohei Ohtani should stay in one lane. Ohtani was potentially such a great hitter, they maintained, that allowing him to continue to try to pitch, on a sporadic schedule that opened him up to further injuring his arm, was standing in the way of him becoming a true superstar. Prominent, smart writers like Joe Sheehan (along with many Angels fans) made totally reasonable, logical cases that Ohtani should give up pitching and focus on being, like, a regular outfielder or something. Even Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, who was an incredible player (but never hit the ball nearly as far as Ohtani does) joined the Ohtani Should Stop Pitching train.
This sentiment was so strong that The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh — as true an Ohtani believer as there has been from the beginning — felt compelled to write a “Let Ohtani Play Two Way” column in August 2019. Reading that column now (which features a reminder that just one year earlier, people were calling for Ohtani to stop hitting) seems absurd. Who in the world wouldn’t want to keep watching this?
The MLB All-Star Game is tonight, and Ohtani is, essentially, the whole story. What Ohtani has done this year is unprecedented in Major League Baseball history. He leads the majors in home runs (33; he’s on pace for 60, which would make him the first player to reach that number since Barry Bonds hit 73, 20 years ago), as well as slugging percentage, total bases, and, amusingly, triples. But he also is one of the better pitchers in baseball, striking out 87 batters in 67 innings and 13 starts, armed with a 96-mile-per-hour fastball and a sinker that is considered one of the game’s perfect pitches. Professional baseball players train their entire lives to be half as good as Ohtani is at either one of the vocations he appears to have mastered. The guy strikes out All-Stars and hits the ball nearly 500 feet. He is both the face of the game of baseball and the man who is breaking it. To say he is the next Babe Ruth is to be unfair to him; Ruth was a masterful pitcher and hitter, but he was never this good at both skills at the same time. Ohtani is a beautiful aberration. He is, essentially, impossible.
I mean, even if you never watch baseball at all, isn’t this just about the most gorgeous sports thing?
If you look closely, you can see three people in the upper deck in Seattle, all by themselves, watching the ball approach them. Angels beat reporter Sam Blum for The Athletic interviewed them. “It just kept getting closer and closer and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’” one said. That’s the sort of story that makes legends.
Ohtani has gone into overdrive so quickly — he was excellent early on, but he exploded for 13 homers in June and had five in the first week and a half of July — that the sports world almost doesn’t know what to do with him. The aggressively and agreeably contrarian Brian Kenny at MLB Network was still making arguments just last week that he should stop pitching, and, more disturbingly, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith seemed to argue Monday that there was something wrong with the best baseball player in the world requiring an interpreter to speak to English-speaking reporters. (That this absurd, offensive statement was said on ESPN says more about Stephen A. Smith than anything else, and his non-apology “clarification,” before attempting an actual apology, said even more.)
It almost feels like the rest of sports is struggling to make sense of Ohtani; everyone who writes or talks about him ends up sounding like a ’50s dad suddenly confronted with the Beatles. And indeed, there is reason to believe Ohtani is pointing baseball’s future in a new direction. Several prospects in the minor leagues are both pitching and hitting, and this week’s MLB Draft featured several dual players, including Boston high-school player Joshua Baez, a monster drafted by the Cardinals in the second round, who runs a 6.4 60-yard dash, has MLB power already, and, oh yeah, throws a 98-mile-per-hour fastball. Ohtani has helped open the door to such two-way players, who, along with their incredible athleticism, are attractive to teams for reasons of organizational efficiency (a player who plays two positions but you only have to pay once!). His success is proof of concept: Now teams see it can be done.
He’s also all anyone wants to watch. (For all of Stephen A. Smith’s grossness, the fact that that such a high-profile ESPN yakker is even coming up with hot takes about baseball in the first place is, sadly, sort of a step forward.) Ohtani, in the span of two months, has become the most popular player in baseball, far surpassing teammate Mike Trout, who is purely the best player. The problem has always been that no one knows or cares who he is, which might serve the low-key Trout (who is currently on the injured list, in any case), but is a serious issue for the sport, which has struggled to market individual players the way its competitors have. Baseball has tried, with various levels of success, to sell Trout, and Ronald Acuna Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and (especially) Fernando Tatis Jr. in recent years. But no one has caught fire like Ohtani this season.
And, perhaps most exciting, is that it’s for no reason other than baseball itself. Ohtani is known in Japan as a “yakyu shonen,” a term that apparently equates to something like a “gym rat.” His entire life, on and off the field, revolves around baseball. He is not a huge personality, the sort of player who flips his bat and gets into fights involving the sclerotic culture of the game. Tatis Jr., thought to be the face of baseball heading into this year, and who very well may continue to be moving forward, was sold as a sort of paradigm shifter — the young brash player your kid pretends to be in the backyard and your uncle is constantly grousing about.
But Ohtani doesn’t need any of that. He just hits the ball farther than everyone else and also throws it harder than everyone else and also runs faster than everyone else. And he looks like a superhero doing it, and seems to be having the time of his life. The beauty of Ohtani is that, in the purest sense, he is baseball: He personifies how truly gorgeous this impossible and often plodding game can be at its best. Ohtani is reinventing the game not by changing its traditions or trying to make it something that it is not. (Not that it isn’t just as much fun to watch Tatis Jr. blow the whole thing up, for what it’s worth.) Ohtani is reinventing baseball by doing things that no one else is able to do. He is otherworldly simply by being himself.
There is, and will continue to be, much debate about Ohtani and MLB’s ability to sell the game through him, particularly with a potentially catastrophic labor fight coming this off-season. But when you watch him, all of that floats away. All you want is to see him do something else you’ve never seen before. Maybe he is the beginning of an MLB resurgence, and maybe he isn’t. But the sport could not ask for a better ambassador. Shohei Ohtani does what so many others cannot: He makes your kids want to go in the backyard and play baseball. He’s an absolute dream.