KANSAS CITY, Mo. – At home, he kept hearing the name. Shohei Ohtani this and Shohei Ohtani that. So 6-year-old Leo Guastello, all bright-eyed and dimple-chinned and faux-hawked, asked his father, P.J., who this guy was. And when dad said that he was a baseball player who was a hitter and a pitcher, Leo asked to watch him on TV. And when they did that and he hit his first career home run, Leo asked to see him in person. And it just so happened that the Los Angeles Angels were coming to town, which is how Leo wound up on the field at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday, asking one more question.
“Can I have your bat?” he said. Shohei Ohtani, baseball’s newest star, his major league career only two weeks old, had just finished batting practice, and rather than peel off into the dugout, he went to sign autographs for a throng of fans on the field. Leo was hoping for more than a signature. Ohtani’s translator, Ippei Mizuhara, relayed the boy’s request. Ohtani chuckled but did not answer. Because it is law in the world of 6-year-olds to repeat a question until it is addressed, Leo continued: “Can I have your bat?” Pause. “Can I have your bat?” Pause. Breath. “Can I have your bat?” Pause. “Can I have your bat?”
For years, Ohtani has been one of the most famous people in Japan – at first an 18-year-old boy with the temerity to believe he can hit and pitch, today a 23-year-old man who proved himself capable of doing just that. He’s well used to people asking for his time, his energy, his voice, his endorsement. But his bat? Well, that seemed too much even for him, and after he finished signing Sports Illustrated covers and baseballs, including one for Leo, he excused himself.
Leo proclaimed Ohtani “the best baseball player ever” and was excited about the ball but not enough to keep him terribly interested in staying on the field. “Daddy, can we go up now?” he asked. P.J. told him to hold on just a minute, which was an A+ dad move, because 30 seconds later, back came Ohtani, new bat in hand. He offered it to Leo, who wasn’t quite sure how to react. He wore the same face as before, in fact, the one that had convinced Ohtani to return in the first place.
“He looked really sad when he was asking me,” Ohtani later said. “Hopefully he can swing the bat and become a good player one day. But I can’t be doing this all the time. I’ll run out of bats.”
Ohtani smiled, the sort of smile one can wear when he gives away a bat before the game, then uses another to take a pitch in his supposed vulnerable zone – hard, inside fastball – and wallop it for a bases-clearing triple. The Ohtani show played on Thursday night at Kauffman Stadium as it has for 10 days now, with him doing things baseball players simply aren’t supposed to.
You can pitch at an elite level, and you can hit at an elite level. You cannot do both regularly. A century of baseball has taught this, and history books are written in ink for a reason. Only Ohtani is doing the kinds of things that merit pencil instead – breaking rules and flouting conventional wisdom and proving what can be possible. And he’s doing so while giving bats away to 6-year-old kids who looked really sad, because being a great baseball player isn’t enough. He needs to be the kind and sensitive one, too.
This is starting to become a thing in a sport that doesn’t do things very well. Sosa-McGwire was a thing, and Bonds was a thing under a dark cloud, and the Cubs were thing-ish. That’s about it in the last 20 years. And maybe it calms down soon, whether it’s because of a slump swinging or a couple bad outings. But within a matter of weeks, Ohtani has declared himself a proto-thing with a chance to be much, much more.
Because it’s not just little Leo who’s enthused with this. Every hardcore baseball fan – every single one – is awed by it. By the home run in his first at-bat at home and then the home run off Corey Kluber and then the 450-foot job to dead center and the latest big hit, on a two-strike fastball from Brandon Maurer that sizzled under his hands at 97 mph. Ohtani had looked goofy two pitches earlier, swinging over a Maurer changeup, and he said he was looking for it. He was looking fastball as well, he said, which meant he was preparing for 85 on the outside and 97 on the inside, which – well, it’s the sort of thing most hitters can’t do, parse different speeds plus different trajectories in different locations and still have the wherewithal to turn one around.
And as the ball split the right-field gap, Ohtani motored toward third. He slid but didn’t need to. He throws a 100-mph fastball and an unfair splitter and hits tape-measure home runs and, oh, by the way, happens to be one of the fastest runners in the game. He’s like the doctor who can play the piano and is a good dad and, oh, by the way, happens to be able to lay tile.
He’s enough of a marvel that the question now isn’t whether he can do it but why he isn’t more. The Los Angeles Angels, winners of five straight after shellacking Kansas City 7-1, in first place in the American League West, don’t seem terribly inclined to mess with what they’ve got going, even if Ohtani would like to do more than DH three times a week, with days off before and after his starts.
“He’s playing a lot. He’s doing a lot,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Not only the days that he doesn’t hit, but he’s throwing bullpens, he’s doing things. Let’s get perspective first.”
Could he do more, though?
“Like pitch him like four days a week?” Scioscia said. “Where are we going with this? You know what I mean?
“I think he’s got the availability to hit, right now, probably three, four days a week without putting him at risk of setbacks in either area,” he continued. “I think we’re going to err on the side of caution, and if evolves into something else, so be it. We’re going to be flexible, certainly, in our rotation on the pitching side, and we’ll see where Shohei lies on the offensive side. But the thing about, ‘We’re holding him back,’ is wrong. That’s just a wrong perspective.”
It’s an admittedly challenging balance to strike. Ohtani clearly has earned a place in the Angels’ lineup. And yet his success hitting (.346/.414/.769) and pitching (2.08 ERA, 18 strikeouts in 13 innings) has been so profound that there’s fear in changing it.
For now, they’ll stick with the rhythm that has served Ohtani well: one start a week, on Sundays. That may not be the case going forward, Scioscia said, but for now Ohtani will DH again Friday, then take the mound in a far less hospitable atmosphere than the perfect 75-and-sunny with which the weather gods blessed Kansas City on Thursday. The forecast for his start Sunday: mid-30s.
“Hopefully, it’s warm that day,” Ohtani said. “But if not, I’m going to be prepared to pitch in that cold weather.”
The baseball world will be watching, as it seems to want to for all things Ohtani. He’s becoming appointment TV, the FOMO real, the hype justified, the doubters wearing big, bright, red noses. From 6-year-olds in the Midwest to those of all ages in California, Japan and wherever else they love baseball, they don’t necessarily need a bat to appreciate him. Shohei Ohtani’s game is plenty.
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