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Greatest Sho in MLB: The Legend, the Circus and the Sneaky Funny Shohei Ohtani

Abbey MastraccoContributor IISeptember 9, 2021

Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani smiles in the dugout during the first inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers Monday, Sept. 6, 2021, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Displaced New Yorkers and West Coast Yankees diehards packed the Big A over three games in late August and early September. Chants of "Let's Go Yankees" could be heard all the way to Disneyland.

But thanks to Shohei Ohtani, they didn't last.

In the second game of the series on Aug. 31, Ohtani made his way to third base with two outs in the fifth inning. After a swing-and-miss by Jared Walsh, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez threw across the diamond to try to stop Phil Gosselin from stealing second. Ohtani broke for home on the throw as part of a delayed double steal, sneaking his left hand past Sanchez's swiping tag to add to Los Angeles' lead in what would be a 6-4 win. 

Welcome to the Sho Show, where the "Let's Go Yankees" chants soon turned into cries of "M-V-P" with nearly everyone in attendance at Angel Stadium joining in. By the next day, it was a Yankees fan in enemy territory starting up the MVP chants. 

Ohtani, the 27-year-old Japanese sensation, has united all of us. Never has the world been so divided, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that Ohtani is spectacular.

"Root for him," Angels manager Joe Maddon told Bleacher Report. "Go ahead and root for him."

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It might have taken a few years, but Ohtani is proving to be everything he was billed to be when he came to MLB from Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan in 2018. All of baseball saw the talent immediately, and he was rewarded with the AL Rookie of the Year title, but injuries limited him from showing what he is truly capable of until this season. 

His 7.1 combined fWAR leads baseball by a decent margin, with Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes behind him at 6.7 fWAR. His .608 slugging percentage is second in the league, and his 43 home runs are the most in baseball and the most ever in a single season by a Japanese-born player. His .964 OPS is the fourth-best mark in the league. Ohtani has taken the mound 12 times while leading the league in home runs. 

He's also the best pitcher on a team that has treated pitching like an afterthought for several years, which is part of the reason he won't be playing among baseball's best in October. Mike Trout has been injured since May 17, and the Angels' combined ERA of 4.67 is 24th in the league. 

Halo fans have been saying "maybe next year" for too many years now, so 2021 is the Year of Ohtani. 

So, who is Ohtani and what makes him so extraordinary? 

    

The Legend of Ohtani

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

It has to be taken into account just how difficult it is to be a two-way player in modern-day baseball. Hitting is a craft just like pitching. Both crafts take an equal amount of physical and mental work. A starting pitcher might only play every five days, but there is work on Days 1-4. There is conditioning and maintenance, there are bullpens to throw, and side sessions in between. There is film to study and hitter tendencies to learn. 

To do all of that, plus go out and hit every single night, is a steep mountain to climb.

"Real baseball fans see and understand what he's doing and how difficult it is," Maddon said. 

Walsh knows firsthand what that workload is like, having been a two-way player until his second MLB season. Walsh only threw five innings of relief in his first season in 2019, but he pitched and hit for Georgia in college and was used out of the bullpen throughout his minor league career. 

"I think the biggest challenge, even for everyday players or pitchers, is getting your body ready to do the job over 162 games. So the fact that he's kind of rotating with as much power as he does, and hitting balls as far as he did and throwing 100 miles an hour is really taxing on your body," Walsh said. "I'm really impressed with how he's been able to recover all year."

There was the Tommy John surgery that kept him from pitching during the 2019 season and the knee surgery that came before 2020. He added muscle prior to the 2020 season to help with his durability, which led to the Twitter nickname "Swolehei" Ohtani. 

"The way his body has transformed—if you look at a picture of him from 2018 to now, I think he's filled out a little bit, he's matured a little bit," Walsh said. "He works his butt off. Some of the most God-given talent, but even when he was much slimmer in 2018, he was hitting balls as far as anyone I've ever seen, so he's got that great skill and the ability to work."

Los Angeles Angels @Angels

@4skinEter don't talk to swolehei ohtani ever again https://t.co/A3YLdWNdpH

He makes the work look easy. 

"It's special, and we don't always realize it because we see him and he never looks tired," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "But when he goes out there the next day after pitching and hits, and hits a homer, you're like, 'That's amazing.' Or when he plays four days in a row, DH'ing and running the bases, stealing bags, hitting triples and then goes out and pitches on the fifth day, you're like, 'What in the world?'"

The world feels different when Ohtani is playing. Almost like it stops. The Angels are used to this considering the club does boast the world's greatest player (or maybe second-greatest, depending on which day it is) in Trout, but if you've never experienced it for yourself, it feels magnetic.

"When the rest of us walk up to the plate, the fans might go grab a beer or something," Walsh said. "When he's at the plate, everyone has got their phone out and they're locked in. He's must-see TV."

It's human nature to want to be around greatness. This was never more obvious than the 2021 MLB All-Star Game in Denver, when the sport's best talents flocked to Ohtani. Walsh recalled the looks of bewilderment and amazement from those on the field in Denver when Ohtani competed in the Home Run Derby and also pitched and served as the DH for the American League team.

The All-Star Game and its surrounding festivities have always been a time for players to appreciate other players. Cameras cut to the sidelines to show MVP and Cy Young candidates filming the derby on their phones or their kids asking for autographs. 

But during this year's edition of the game, everyone became a kid again. 

"Even in the clubhouse, everybody wanted to be around him a little bit and say a few words to him, maybe get an autograph if they could because this is really historic what he's doing," Walsh said. "You just want to be near him and be a part of it."

    

The Ohtani Circus

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Here's what fans don't often see: Other players becoming fans themselves, the hoards of fans back home in Japan who regard him as a heartthrob and the gaggle of media members chronicling his every move. 

The Angels beat has swelled from three writers to a number that varies from 15-20 depending on the game. There are 10-15 members, sometimes more, from the Japanese media that cover Ohtani on a daily basis, including TV crews, radio personalities, national writers, wire outlet stringers and even a dedicated writer from his hometown newspaper in Oshu City. Several of them travel with the Angels. There may be even more media members next season when COVID-19 travel restrictions are expected to loosen and the reporters who covered the Olympic Games in Tokyo come stateside. 

The club carefully manages his media, though it should be noted that there is no diva treatment. He speaks to the media following his pitching performances like every other starting pitcher in the league does, and the Angels will often have him speak with reporters after notable home runs or big offensive performances as well.

When Detroit Tigers broadcaster Jack Morris used a racist accent during one of Ohtani's at-bats, Ohtani addressed the media.

"I did see the footage and I heard it. Personally, I'm not offended, and I didn't take anything personally," he said, through an interpreter. "He is a Hall of Famer. He has a big influence in the baseball world. It's kind of a tough spot."

Maddon was impressed with the way he handled the situation. 

"He handled that beautifully, and that's the humility showing through," the manager said. "His empathy for everybody is there; it shines through."

The sheer amount of media he faces would be overwhelming for even the most loquacious players, but a lot is asked of Ohtani and his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, to begin with. The way he has deftly handled the myriad requests and interviews in three languages—English, Japanese and Spanish—has not gone unnoticed.

"It's something I don't think a lot of people factor in," Walsh said. "He gets a lot of attention and he gets pulled in a lot of directions. But he's always a pro, he's always got a smile on his face. So I really respect it. I think his patience is something that he's had for a long time and was probably instilled in him when he was a kid."

Mizuhara has been with Ohtani throughout his MLB career. The role of an interpreter goes beyond just media requests. Interpreters are often conditioning partners, bullpen catchers and liaisons between players, managers, coaches, trainers and teammates. 

There is not only a language barrier but also a cultural one that exists for many players of foreign descent. Interpreters like Mizuhara guide players through games and through their adjustments to the United States. Mizuhara is there to facilitate the pitches that catchers are calling for as well as to facilitate his banter with teammates.

"Him and Ippei together are a wonderful combination," Maddon said. "Communicatively, it couldn't be any better between the two guys."

    

The Sneaky Funny Ohtani

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

Ohtani can be a bit guarded, but there is a wry sense of humor that Mizuhara helps bring out. Sometimes he's even been the butt of the joke, like the time Ohtani printed shirts for his teammates with a picture of Mizuhara at Antelope Canyon

The jokes come when no one is expecting them. 

"He's sneaky," Suzuki said. "Like, out of nowhere it comes out and you're just like, 'Shohei?' It's funny."

Los Angeles Angels @Angels

The sky isn’t the only thing dripping today. 💧 https://t.co/u98cSwphkV

The humor has always been there, teammates say, but between the language barrier, the club's personnel changes and his own injuries and obstacles to overcome, the hilarity has been subdued at times. 

Not this year, though. Maddon has seen another talent this season. 

"When I first met him, he didn't show all of that," Maddon said. "But this year, as he's played and pitched and showed what he can do, he's showed it. He'll imitate players, he'll mimic players, but he'll also take the heat too."

Not all players have had the dubious honor of being imitated by arguably the world's greatest baseball player, but they seem to know that when it comes, it will be accurate. 

"I'm sure he's got an embarrassing one of me that I haven't seen yet," Walsh said.

He's baseball's superman, but he's also Clark Kent. There are many (deservedly) hyperbolic descriptions of Ohtani, but his teammates emphasized the fact that off the field he's just kind of a normal...dude. 

The Angels media guide says his favorite hobby is playing Clash Royale, a smartphone video game. Teammates say he's pretty good at that, too. They also say he's genuine, humble, polite and diligent. They say he's just another guy who loves baseball.

Maddon says he's extremely respectful and has a great amount of empathy for everyone around him. Fans say he's friendly. Suzuki used the term "even-keeled" more than once, and Walsh echoed that sentiment.

"He's usually in a very good mood. He's a great teammate," Walsh said. "I think everybody likes him so much because he brings consistency. He's got a big smile and enjoys the game. Even if he has a bad night the night before, he's happy when he shows up the next day. That's pretty much all you can ask for."

Maybe that's part of his intrigue: Ohtani is a normal human doing superhuman things on the baseball field. He can steal home and steal the hearts of baseball fans worldwide. He can throw payoff pitches and make you laugh. 

It's all part of the greatest Sho in baseball. 

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