The legends and tales of Shohei Ohtani have rumbled across Major League Baseball for a couple of years now.
The whispers told stories of a teenage phenom in Japan who wielded a bat like Babe Ruth and used his golden arm to throw triple-digit fastballs like Nolan Ryan. And not only did he hit and pitch in Japan, he was a superstar at both tasks. In 2016, this wonder hit 22 homers with a .322 average and 1.004 OPS in 104 games as a hitter AND posted a 1.86 ERA with an average of 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 140 innings as a pitcher.
He was 21 years old that season.
No doubt, the legend of Ohtani was intoxicating. What could he do if given the chance to compete in MLB, against the best baseball players in the world?
That’s what Ohtani, now 23, wants to know, too. And that burning desire is part of what makes Ohtani’s arrival in North America so damn interesting. This Japanese superstar could have landed a contract north of $200 million if he had waited two years to come over as a full-fledged free agent — by MLB’s current CBA, all international players under the age of 25 are considered amateurs, which means they’re only eligible for that specific, very restricted, bonus pool available to teams — but he wants to measure himself against the best of the best right damn now.
So instead of waiting for a deal worth $200 million, he chose to play for the Angels for the $2.315 million signing bonus the club had left in their international pool. Think about that. The competitive spirit was so strong in this athlete that he essentially threw away a couple hundred million so he could test his skills against elite competition.
How can you not root for a guy like that?
“I have never seen a player who hit harder than Ohtani except Barry Bonds” Katsunori Kojima, who worked for Giants and Mets as a translator and a video coach in 2002 and 2003, told Sporting News.
Kojima, who now works as a baseball writer and commentator in Japan, interviewed Ohtani in 2015 and wrote the book about how Ohtani succeeded as a two-way player. The two have had good relationship since, with Kojima attending many of Ohtani’s games.
“I have watched so many players hit in the batting practice both in U.S. and Japan, and as for a ball-striking distance; Bonds and Ohtani were definitely the best,” Kojima said. “He is a 10-game winning pitcher with the power to hit as far as Barry Bonds at bat.”
Though Ohtani has never faced MLB pitching, or experienced the MLB lifestyle, he has a good friend with plenty of big-league experience: Yu Darvish, his countryman.
Darvish, 31, played for seven years with the Fighters before he came to the big leagues. In fact, Ohtani was expected to be the “next Darvish” when he was drafted by the Fighters.
Darvish, 2013 AL Cy Young Award runner-up, has long been an idol for young baseball fans in Japan — including Ohtani. And in recent years, they’ve met up in the offseason to work out together.