SAPPORO – Since he turned pro in 2013, everybody knew that Shohei Otani would set out for the United States to play at the highest level in the major leagues.
Otani, a rare two-way player, is the pride of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. And the pride of Japanese baseball.
So baseball fans only wish him the best to be an elite player in America like he has been in Japan.
But that is why some fans have mixed feelings as Otani likely leaves Japan after an injury-plagued 2017 season.
A group of three, Yuzo Yamamoto, his wife Shizuko and Shizuko’s younger sister Tomiko Endo, who came to Sapporo Dome on Wednesday to see Otani’s probable final start in Japan as a pitcher, want the youngster to stay in Japan for at least one more year, instead of going to North America.
“If he has to go, I wanted him to go in a perfect condition,” said the 61-year-old Yuzo, who came to the stadium for about half of the Fighters’ home contests this season from his home in Ishikari, just north of Sapporo, before Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s 3-0 win over the Orix Buffaloes.
Otani missed a big chunk of the season before he returned to the field at the end of June after sustaining a left ankle injury last offseason. Because of the injury, he missed the World Baseball Classic in March. As a pitcher, he made only five starts, including his complete-game shutout on Wednesday, and pleased his fans by batting cleanup, too.
Shizuko said that Otani could sign a much bigger deal with a big league club if he waited a couple more years. Under MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement signed last winter, international players under 25 years old are allowed to sign a minor league contract with a maximum signing bonus of about $10.1 million. But Otani, 23, has apparently decided to leave while sacrificing a giant sum of money.
“Otani says that money is not a problem,” said Yuzo, a former company employee. “But for his fans like us, we don’t want him to be seen as a bargain.”
It is difficult to identify Fighters fans who do not like Otani, because they admire his humble, polite demeanor on and off the field, not just his unparalleled baseball abilities.
“He’s so modest to anyone and very humble,” Shizuko said. “And just looking at him when we visit the (Fighters’) training camps, he’s working extremely hard moving back and forth for pitching and hitting. And it makes you like him and support him.”
Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama said after the game that because he has phenomenal talent, Otani does things as if they are nothing. But he added that he was “happy” to see him play extremely hard in the game.
“I love him when he does that,” Kuriyama said. “And fans get moved when he shows that.”
Yuzo insisted that Otani’s baseball ability and likable character make him “one of a kind” that you would never see again in Japanese baseball.
“Oh yeah, easily,” he said, when asked if Otani has exceeded high expectations placed on him when he turned pro. “I’m sure the number of fans that will come to games will decrease (because of the absence of Otani). People have always talked about Otani. How bad (cleanup hitter Sho) Nakata’s performance is, people would still come because of Otani.”
Also at Sapporo Dome, female fans Yukari Suzuki and Seri Yamashita, both of whom are in their late 20s and from Sapporo, are enthusiastic Fighters and Otani fanatics. Unlike the above-mentioned group, they were more supportive of Otani’s move to the U.S. this upcoming season.
“I love him. He’s appeared in my dream even,” Yamashita said with a laugh. “We’ve been able to see him play like it’s normal, but we are going to have to see him from a far distance (when he begins playing in the majors). But I’ll still keep supporting him.
“If he says he’s not concerned about money, then we should let him pursue what he wants to do and support him.”
After Wednesday’s game, Otani, who has not spoken publicly about his move to the majors yet, said that he was happy to receive cheers from fans as he walked to the mound for the ninth inning. But the reigning Pacific League MVP was also apologetic that he had not been able to deliver great performances all seasons like he did in this game.
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