TEMPE, Ariz. — Shohei Ohtani walked up the dugout steps at 10:30 a.m. local time Wednesday, paused to tip his cap to the wall of photographers in his path, then headed off to a back field at Los Angeles Angels‘ spring camp to begin the grandest of baseball adventures.
Before the day was through, Ohtani took batting practice in the rain, hung out with his former Nippon Professional Baseball manager and ascended a podium for his welcome-to-spring training media session in a packed hotel conference room on a butte overlooking Tempe Diablo Stadium.
As he strives to achieve his goal of playing two ways in the majors, Ohtani is taking things pitch-by-pitch and swing-by-swing, rather than dwelling on the enormity of the task that awaits him.
“I’ve never felt like I’ve accomplished my dream yet,” Ohtani said through his personal translator, Ippei Mizuhara. “I’m still in the middle of trying to accomplish that dream. Once that time comes, that’s when I’ll find out. At this point, I really don’t know.”
Ohtani spoke for nearly 30 minutes before about 150 media members and revealed himself to be the polite, humble and respectful young athlete who has earned raves throughout the international baseball community. Among the Japanese media members entrusted with following him on a daily basis, the questions transcend baseball. Ohtani gave a number of vanilla baseball responses Wednesday, expressing his desire to please fans with his effort and help the Angels win games.
On the personal side, he revealed that he did not indulge his infamous sweet tooth by eating any chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and he’s still adjusting to life alone in a foreign land after living in his childhood home with his parents during his tenure with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.
“It’s my first time living on my own,” he said. “Lifestyle-wise, nothing has really changed. But a three-bedroom apartment is really big. I feel kind of lonely by myself in such a big place.”
Shohei Ohtani has sparked the imagination of baseball fans everywhere as his ability to both hit and pitch sits him apart from nearly everyone else in Major League Baseball. But what can you expect from this one-of-a-kind player in ESPN’s fantasy game?
The expectations and attention heaped upon Ohtani, 23, stem from his moniker as “Japan’s Babe Ruth.” He routinely surpassed 100 mph on the radar gun as a pitcher and showed his power by hitting 22 homers and slugging .588 for the Fighters at age 21. Each day, new details emerge of the Angels’ game plan for Ohtani. The Angels made it clear that they consider him a pitcher first and a designated hitter second. He will not be doing any outfield work in spring training, with the exception of shagging flies with his fellow pitchers.
And when Ohtani runs the bases, Angels manager Mike Scioscia has decreed that head-first slides are out of the question. The Fighters had a ban on sliding head-first, so Ohtani already is accustomed to leading with his spikes.
Ohtani took batting practice for the first time Wednesday and appeared slightly out of sync at the outset due to the change in routine. American batting practice pitchers throw from a distance of about 45 feet, while their Japanese counterparts stand 60 feet away atop the mound. In Major League Baseball, the task of throwing BP typically falls to coaches who groove pitches, assembly-line style. In Japan, former professional pitchers handle the chore at a pace that better approximates actual game conditions.
Ohtani mixed in a few line drives with some lazy fly balls in his first two rounds against Angels BP pitcher Mike Ashman. Ohtani found his rhythm in the next two rounds, launching several home runs. Some teammates broke into in a roar behind the cage when one ball sailed over the fence in straightaway center field.
“He’s got a real nice, compact swing with power,” said Angels catcher Rene Rivera. “For a pitcher to have that swing is amazing. I’ve been in the National League for the last four or five years. I’ve watched Madison Bumgarner, and we had Noah Syndergaard [with the Mets], and those guys are pretty good hitters.
“But this guy doesn’t look like a pitcher out there. He looks like a position player. He knows what he’s doing. I think it’s going to translate over here real nice.”
Hideki Kuriyama, Ohtani’s manager in Nippon, said his former prodigy has the drive and makeup to handle the oppressive scrutiny that he will encounter in his transition to the MLB game.
“From what I know of him, he’s the type of player who will perform that much better with a lot of pressure on his shoulders,” Kuriyama said. “Maybe he needs the pressure to perform better.”
Ohtani’s new teammates are doing their best to help him assimilate. He has played pickup basketball in camp with his fellow Angels and recently went golfing with Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney and several other pitchers. Reliever Blake Parker, who played in a foursome with Ohtani and Mizuhara, pronounced Ohtani a better baseball player than a golfer.
“He doesn’t play enough, but he’s got a good swing,” Parker said. “When he hits it, it goes.”
Ohtani’s locker sits at the far end of the Angels’ clubhouse with the pitchers, between that of Richards and reliever Jose Alvarez. Parker, who dresses another two lockers away, has already gleaned some insights into Ohtani’s sense of humor.
“I played winter ball with a bunch of Japanese guys back in 2008, and I was telling him a few phrases I know,” Parker said. “All curse words. He got a kick out of that.
“This is not only good for our team [on the field], but I guess you would say morale. He’s ‘the guy’ over there in Japan, and it’s exciting to see what he can contribute to our team. We’re excited just to see and watch how he can help us.”
The Angels’ camp has a more exhilarating feel to it this spring, even though perennial MVP candidate Mike Trout and future Baseball Hall of Famer Albert Pujols (who is 32 hits shy of 3,000 for his career) have yet to appear on the premises. The magnitude of Ohtani’s quest has captivated his teammates, along with the baseball-watching public.
“I’m sitting here thinking of it, and it kind of gives me chills to see a talent of this caliber come through,” said Angels pitcher Parker Bridwell. “We’re fortunate to be able to have him. I’m glad he picked us.”