It must take a considerable amount of willpower for Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama not to respond to questions about his former player Shohei Ohtani with a simple, “I told you so.” Although the sly smile he lets slip on occasion more or less does the job.
Really, none of the Fighters seemed particularly vexed by Ohtani’s issues in MLB during spring training with the Los Angeles Angels. They’d already seen him juggle hitting and pitching at a high level — not to mention how well he acquitted himself as an outfielder for one stretch.
It was the naysayers who were in for the surprise once the season began and Ohtani let loose with the full force of the promise that had left MLB fans and teams anxiously awaiting his arrival.
Ohtani has played 10 games and is already the toast of MLB. He has two wins on the mound and three homers at the plate. He’s struck out 18 in 13 innings and already recorded his first MLB double and triple, and has 11 RBIs.
“I think the reaction has mostly been that people are very impressed, and those who dismissed his chances in the spring are wondering why they were so hasty,” says Danny Knobler, who covers baseball for Bleacher Report. “I do think some people will be wondering if he can keep this up through the season. But I don’t think people are doubting him now.”
If he continues at a high level, Ohtani could have a greater impact on how Japanese baseball, and in some ways Japan itself, is perceived than even pitcher Hideo Nomo did during his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the mid-90s.
“Much more, sure,” said Robert Whiting, a best-selling author of several books, including “You Gotta Have Wa,” his seminal Japanese baseball title. “He’s getting so much play in the United States. Everywhere you look, there’s an article about him or he’s being mentioned on a TV show.
“It’s not quite as intense as it is here, but still, people can’t stop talking about him. Nomo, Ichiro (Suzuki), (Hideki) Matsui all got a lot of attention. (Daisuke) Matsuzaka too. As far as respect as a player, the respect that Americans will give to a Japanese player, it certainly looks like Ohtani will be the most respected when all is said and done.
“Ichiro will have his 3,000 hits and combined hit record if you count Japan, but he’s good at hitting ground balls to second base and running them out. This is something different. This is an entirely new category. What else can you say but Babe Ruth?”
Baseball may be the American pastime, but Japan has taken it and shaped it in its own image. When NPB was viewed from afar as little more than a minor league, Nomo, Ichiro and the rest proved that was a myth.
However, remnants of Japan’s need to compete with, and beat, MLB (and the U.S.) — something that runs deeper than sports — remain.
“They’ve been saying that for decades,” Whiting said. “Every time a Japanese all-star team beats an American all-star team in postseason play, then they say, ‘ well it shows we’re catching up to the major leagues.’
“I think that’s just evidence of that whole idea that these players validate Japan somehow. It’s more than just baseball. It’s a question of national self-esteem.”
Japan has long since earned global respect on the diamond. Still, NPB doesn’t always get enough credit for the talent it possesses. That’s partly why Ohtani was met with smirks as he struggled through spring training. He could cut it in Japan, doubters might’ve thought, but not in MLB.
There are fewer of those voices now.
The league will eventually adjust to Ohtani, and he’ll hit some bumps in the road. But he’s shown he has what it takes to succeed.
Born, bred and molded in Japan, Ohtani has the potential to change the way Japanese ballplayers are regarded in terms of their own skill and the skill of the players they compete against before heading to MLB.
If there were any thought left that Japan or NPB couldn’t produce players on par with the best in North America, Ohtani may well provide the definitive answer.
“(Japanese) can point to (Masahiro) Tanaka and (Yu) Darvish on their best days as pitchers who are as good as anything the Americans have, and then they can point to Ohtani,” Whiting said. “He’s as good as any power hitter in the States so far, it looks like, and there’s nobody else in the major leagues who can do what he does with him also pitching. What can you do for an encore after this? There are no more barriers to break.”
Fans in the U.S. have fallen under Ohtani’s spell, as curiosity has given way to fascination and a celebration of his abilities.
“To me, the way Ohtani has starred so brilliantly after struggling in spring training has only added to his legend,” said Jon Morosi, a reporter for MLB Network and MLB.com. “He remade his hitting approach in a narrow window at the end of spring training and has been dominant ever since. That is nearly impossible to do.
“He’s making American baseball fans and those who work in the sport reconsider what is possible, and there’s immense cultural and commercial power in that dynamic. He already has more fans across the country than many contemporary MLB stars.”
His following has been even more intense in Japan. Whiting equates it to the frenzy which once surrounded Yomiuri’s Shigeo Nagashima — ‘Mr. Pro Yakyu’ himself — Nomo, Ichiro, Matsui and Matsuzaka,
“In terms of coverage, Ohtani probably gets the same, except that what he is doing is truly exceptional,” Whiting said. “Someone would have to create a TV channel that dedicated itself to only Ohtani for him to surpass those who went before.
“However, what he is doing is truly exceptional. Two pitching wins and three homers in a week is incredible. After all this, I think the Japanese baseball complex vis-a-vis the U.S. and MLB may be disappearing.”