DENVER — The best baseball players in the world assembled in Denver on Monday to offer their expertly awed perspective on Shohei Ohtani.
Oh, they answered questions about their own exploits too, of course, how much of an honor it was to be named to a first or fifth or eighth All-Star team. They picked tacos or tamales, weighed in on what it means to “bat around” (my vote: nine plate appearances in one inning). But whether they’re teammates, regular rivals, or were seeing him in person for the first time at Coors Field this week, everyone was asked about the living legend in their midst.
“Where is he now? Wherever the big crowd is,” reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber quipped during the mad rush of media day.
But Ohtani wasn’t among the rest of the All-Star players. After he had been voted into the game as a designated hitter by fans, the players had picked him to be an All-Star pitcher as well. Careful coordination between Rays manager Kevin Cash, who will manage the AL team, and Angels manager Joe Maddon, plus MLB’s willingness to bend the rules meant that Ohtani would bat leadoff and be the American League’s starting pitcher. Oh, and appear as the No. 1 seed in the Home Run Derby.
All-Star starters aren’t subject to the scrums of media day — instead they appear alongside their manager-for-a-day up on a dais. In a crisp white shirt with just the top button undone, Ohtani demurred. He was not even expecting to be chosen as a pitcher. A Japanese reporter told him that the country, still suffering through the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, awakes each morning to check his stats from the night before.
“It’s giving everyone in Japan a lot of energy,” she said, according to Ohtani’s interpreter Ippei Mizuhara.
Ohtani demurred again, advising his countrymen back home to enjoy the feats of all eight Home Run Derby participants.
But do not mistake Ohtani’s humility for oblivion to his status in a sport that needs him at least as much as he needs it.
“I’m expecting to be pretty fatigued and exhausted after these two days,” Ohtani had said, hours before repeatedly swinging for the fences in Denver’s thin 90-degree air. “But there’s a lot of people that want to watch it. And I want to make those guys happy, so that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Shohei Ohtani is the All-Stars’ star
The same day that Ohtani received the loudest ovation in the derby introductions, Stephen A. Smith went on TV to say the man most often compared to Babe Ruth was an unfit face of the game because he is not a native English speaker. Smith later recanted those comments, but make no mistake: The chyron ESPN ran beneath this unveiled xenophobia asked if it’s “good for MLB” that Ohtani is as great as he is.
“I’m in awe of what this guy is doing. It’s really good for the game,” the Cubs’ Kris Bryant said. “And I’m sure he’s making his country real proud, too.”
Bryant put Ohtani on his Mount Rushmore of active baseball players. Phillies starter Zack Wheeler picked him as the Face of Baseball. Rays catcher Mike Zunino did, too. It’s either him or Fernando Tatis Jr., according to reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman.
“It’s Aaron [Judge] right?” said Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, loyal to the pinstripes. “It’s gotta be AJ.
And if you really want to know what’s cool, ask Gen Z.
The first overall pick in the 2021 draft Henry Davis, top Red Sox pick Marcelo Mayer and Giants second-round draft pick Matt Mikulski all agreed: The current face of baseball is Shohei Ohtani.
“I feel like he’s already got the MVP locked up, no offense to anyone else,” said the Nationals’ Trea Turner.
“I’ve got a couple questions to ask him about hitting tonight,” Judge said. “I watch his mechanics, they’re perfect.”
“Does he still lead the league in triples too?” asked Zunino. And yes, he does. His 33 home runs lead not just the AL, but all of baseball too.
“Oh, but also he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball,” Bryant said.
So is it any wonder that the fanfare, the myth-building, the hype and the hoopla is unmatched?
“No,” said Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel, who has the most All-Star experience of anyone in Denver this week. He would know. “But there’s never been anybody to do what he’s doing, so rightfully so.”
A show unto himself
Ohtani did not win the 2021 Home Run Derby. Pete Alonso might as well have been genetically engineered to do two things: win home run derbies, and have fun doing it. The fact that he also plays baseball (for which he is paid less this season than he made in a single night of straight vibing his way through the derby in Denver) is merely incidental.
But boy did Ohtani put on a Sho.
The quietest a packed Coors Field got on Monday night was when Ohtani got off to a slow start in the first round against the Nationals’ Juan Soto, hitting would-be doubles down the line instead of moonshots. He doubled over, looking more chagrined than defeated. It simply set the stage for a comeback. He tied Soto with a late surge that felt scripted. They tied again in a tiebreaker. Took it to a three-swing decider where Soto’s unparalleled plate discipline put up a perfect three-spot before Ohtani could even get back to the plate.
If you try to, you could almost convince yourself he put his first pitch on the ground on purpose, perhaps having not quite expected this level of fatigue. Or maybe he was just gassed — a long day of living like the Beatles of the baseball world will do that to a guy who’s got at least two whole countries hanging on his every swing. And so his derby dreams ended in a first round that might have been the most memorable action of the whole night.
Afterwards, he said it was fun, but more tiring than the regular season. For now, he would just try to get a lot of sleep.
“As much sleep as I can,” Ohtani said through his interpreter.
He’ll need it. He’s starting and batting leadoff in the All-Star Game in just a few hours.
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