Shohei Otani spent part of his Saturday afternoon being shepherded around one of Makuhari Messe’s spacious international exhibition halls while having ham shoved in his mouth.
The stuff was everywhere too, raw, peppered, on pizza, in curry and that was just the tip of the iceberg. At the center this buta matsuri that was the Nippon Ham product presentation ceremony, was the Fighters’ 2012 rookie class, led by Otani, prized pitcher and veritable guest of honor, and manager Hideki Kuriyama.
They moved from stall to stall, followed by a sizable contingent of fans — kept at arm’s length by a crew of red-jacketed staffers — nearly all wielding a camera or smart phone. Otani ate, fans snapped, and the caravan moved along.
This is Otani’s new normal. The masses — upwards of 3,000 on this day — want to see him pitch, but they’ll take what they can get.
“It was a good experience,” Otani said afterward. “I understand you have to get along with fans as well as sponsors as a professional player.”
Clad in a heather gray suit, Otani didn’t always look entirely comfortable as the center of attention. Or maybe that was the suit, which he was wearing for the first time. Which was a bit too short and belonged to teammate Atsushi Ugumori.
“I feel encouraged by getting cheered on by so many fans every day,” he said. “I felt nervous at first but I’m getting used to it. I think I’m doing better.”
There will be plenty of opportunities to improve, because the crowds aren’t going away, if anything they’ll get bigger, and there won’t be any way to escape the spotlight.
Fame is sometimes suffocating that way, and it can be a mighty burden to bear when weighed down with outsized expectations. Otani’s adjustment to this new facet of his life will be just as important as the adjustments he makes on the field as he enters the professional ranks if he hopes to succeed.
He acquitted himself well and said all the right things Saturday, making a brief introductory speech and participating in a Nippon Ham “talk show” — though Yohei Kagiya stole the show, drawing an ovation from the crowd and a “thank you” from Kuriyama for being the only one of the seven rookies to list ham as his favorite food.
Because of Otani’s flirtation with the majors, and vice versa, coming out of high school, and because he’ll wear No. 11 — Yu Darvish’s number — in Sapporo, the bar will be set very high, perhaps unrealistically so, by fans and observers from day one.
“I want to become a player who can contribute to the team and meet the expectations people have of me,” Otani said.
Having lived through this with pitcher Yuki Saito in 2010, the Fighters are wary of putting too much pressure on Otani too soon.
“He is 18 years old, but he understands where he stands, what he has to do and what his responsibility is,” Kuriyama said.
Up close, the image of Otani the teenage fireballer who boldly wanted to head to the U.S fresh out of high school fades considerably.
Standing in the center of a group of reporters, and fidgeting a bit in Ugumori’s suit, Otani looks very much like a high schooler. His 193-cm frame is slender and unassuming, and at 86 kg leaves plenty of room for future muscle. The hint of shyness in his body language, and few wisps of hair above his upper lip somehow make him look even younger. When he speaks, it’s in soft, quiet tones, and he politely directs his gaze at his questioner — because “he’s a good boy from Tohoku,” and apparently that’s how good boys from Tohoku answer questions.
His countenance was wholly different on the mound last year, when he was the phenom with the electric arm and MLB velocity — and actually pretty nifty with a bat too — at Iwate’s Hanamaki Higashi High, which also produced Seibu Lions pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who pondered jumping from high school to the U.S. two seasons ago.
Otani touched 160 kph with his fastball during the prefectural tournament for the National High School Baseball Tournament in July, and scouts drooled over his potential — had he displayed a modicum of control on a halfway consistent basis, a few of them would’ve needed medical assistance.
Otani soon proclaimed that he was heading to the U.S., not NPB, but Nippon Ham drafted him anyway.
It was a gamble the Fighters were familiar with, having the previous year used a first-round pick on pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, despite assertions he’d only sign with the Yomiuri Giants, managed by his uncle, Tatsunori Hara.
It was a wasted pick. Sugano remained resolute, sat out long enough to outlast Nippon Ham’s hold over his rights, and was drafted by the Giants in 2012.
Nippon Ham got its man this time, beating the odds by talking Otani into beginning his career in Sapporo, rather than on a minor-league roster in Small Town U.S.A.
Dealing with his new-found fame is, of course, only half the battle for Otani. With camp fast approaching, he’s been using practice sessions to shake off some rust.
The Fighters will send him to camp with the ni-gun squad initially, then go from there based on his performance.
“I want him to get a knack for either batting or pitching or both, so that we can decide how we use him in the preseason games,” Kuriyama said.
The rookie wants to do both, but said wasn’t able to accurately access his skills yet.
“We haven’t played a game yet,” he said. “I haven’t seen the level other people are on. I look forward to seeing how I can perform in a game.”
Even though he’ll be starting out with the ni-gun team, Otani will still brush shoulders with a few players such as veteran infielders Makoto Kaneko and Eiichi Koyano.
“I want to learn a lot from them and ask questions when I have the chance,” Otani said. “Not only about batting techniques, but also how they can play for so long on the top level.”
Kuriyama called Otani a “clever kid,” and will soon find out how he thrives under the intense scrutiny that awaits.
“I don’t know how it will go yet,” Otani said. “I’ll try to get used to it quickly and build my fundamentals so that I can join the first team as soon as possible.”