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IT'S 'SHO TIME': AMERICA SHOULD EMBRACE THE OHTANI EXPERIENCE
Our nation doesn’t seem to know it, but Shohei Ohtani is performing his hit-and-pitch rock show in Babe Ruth’s neighborhood this week — and executing two-way dominance like no one in baseball history
If we watch sports to dream, marvel, gasp and behold the unprecedented, allow me to confirm your mandated viewing appointment. It’s called Sho Time, and for reasons wholly unacceptable, it has been lost in our semi-vaccinated, summer-distracted land that baseball’s transcendent hit-and-pitch wonder is playing this week in the Bronx.
Shohei Ohtani, meet the ghosts of Babe Ruth.
But before referencing Yankee Stadium as the House That Ruth Built, it should be underscored that Ohtani is in the breathtaking midst of one-upping The Babe — and anybody else who ever played Major League Baseball. One hundred years to the month after Ruth became the first man to start a game as a pitcher while leading his league in home runs, Ohtani is taking the two-way phenomenon to new and previously unimagined plateaus. While Ruth’s dedicated duality spanned only a few seasons, with mixed results as a hitter and pitcher, Sho Time is a revolutionary rock show showcasing a magical performer at the height of his slugging and mound powers, capable of 450-foot home runs and 100-mph fastballs in the same inning.
In an age of specialization, he wants it all. At a time when hitters struggle to make contact, Ohtani ranks among big-league leaders with 26 home runs, 60 RBIs, 47 extra-base hits and a 1.031 OPS. As MLB clumsily cracks down on pitchers using illegal foreign substances, he greets inspecting umpires with a shrug and grin, knowing he is innocent in compiling a 2.58 ERA over 11 starts. The Shohei Ohtani Experience should not be happening in 2021. Somehow, it’s thriving, pumping life into a troubled sport that needs joy and wonderment.
‘‘The ability to dominate on both sides of the ball is something none of us have really ever seen,’’ said Yankees manager Aaron Boone.
‘‘Almost supernatural,’’ said Angels manager Joe Maddon, privileged to pencil in Ohtani’s name every day as a designated hitter or pitcher. ‘‘It will be difficult to get somebody to replicate what he’s done.’’
‘‘The best baseball player on this planet … ever,’’ said C.C. Sabathia, the future Hall of Fame pitcher.
Only the latter comment is open to debate, in that Ohtani must maintain his health to avoid becoming a 21st-century Bo Jackson and fading away before his time. But at present, this monumental truth cannot be disputed: No one, in the history of the sport, has been such a commanding, game-changing threat with his bat AND arm. Maybe the best tribute is that his teammate, Mike Trout, has been regarded for years as baseball’s best player and one of the greatest ever — and Sho Time, somehow, is eclipsing Trout.
‘‘A mythical legend in human form,’’ Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman tweeted.
‘‘An absolute freak of nature,’’ Yankees pitcher Michael King said. ‘‘I’ve got to make sure he’s not a god-like figure in my head when I’m attacking him.’’
Too late. In the first inning Monday night, the god stung him for a solo shot to right field that exited at 117.2 mph — the hardest-hit homer by an Angels player in the Statcast age, which includes Trout. Said Maddon: ‘‘That definitely sent a message. It was just the right way to start his trip to New York.’’ It was his 10th homer in the last 13 games, dovetailing with pitching numbers in the same period — 12 innings, 2 runs, 14 strikeouts — that suggest his Wednesday night mound start, while also taking his swings at the plate, could assume a magnificent place in baseball lore. Does he realize that Ruth, 88 years ago, threw a complete game and homered in a 6-5 win over the Red Sox at the original Stadium? He’ll hear plenty about it in the coming hours.
‘‘It’s an honor to be able to play here,’’ Ohtani said through his now-famous interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. ‘‘I don’t get to come here often. I’m trying to make the most of it.’’
Said Maddon of the impending mid-week drama: ‘‘I know he's gonna enjoy it. He’ll be ready for it. It's one of those things he embraces. He definitely likes these kinds of moments. He's got a slow heartbeat, a lot of self-confidence. I love the way he goes about his business. So I'm looking forward to watching it myself. As of right now, he will hit and pitch on that day. So we'll see how it plays out."
The only element of Sho Time more astonishing than Ohtani himself is why he isn’t celebrated more by fans and media. Remember, he has quieted critics who dismissed his two-way mania as a fleeting 2018 fad when he was derailed by operations — an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and a knee issue caused by a congenital condition. Shut down from pitching during the pandemic-protracted 2020 season, he hit only .190. Was he a bust?
‘‘Pathetic,’’ Ohtani said in a frank self-assessment.
The told-you-so crowd declared he’d been overhyped in his native Japan, where he could hit and pitch on a lower competitive level. Double-dipping couldn’t work in the mighty big leagues, they said, and he heard the putdowns. So he returned to his homeland, changed his diet and reconstructed his lower body. When Ohtani arrived at spring training, he was assured by Madden and Perry Minasian, the Angels’ new general manager, that he’d be turned loose again as a two-way monster — as he always wanted. Sho Time was reborn.
‘‘I came here to do the two-way thing,” he said. ‘‘That’s a big motivation for me, to try to prove to everyone I’m capable of it.”
He has done precisely that, taking over for the injured Trout as the sport’s supreme attraction. Now, America is urged to celebrate the sensation. Let’s hope, amid anti-Asian tensions, that hate-mongers aren’t viewing Ohtani as a Japanese intruder. Let’s hope the East Coast isn’t harboring some silly bias because he plays on the West Coast. For that matter, let’s hope Hollywood isn’t shading him because he plays for the Angels, 31 miles and millions of megawatts from the starpower of Chavez Ravine. If he played in New York, Sho Time would be a thing. THE THING.
It was Ohtani’s decision to reject the Yankees and Dodgers and choose Anaheim. The call reflected wisdom in his early 20s, when he realized the pressure in two continents to succeed immediately would be easier to navigate in Orange County, where media coverage is minimal for a major market and fans are overly interested in the Rally Monkey. When he arrives in Denver next month for the All-Star Game, he deserves to be front and center, starting with his prominent place in Home Run Derby — imagine his power and torque in the mile-high altitude — followed by a game in which he’ll start as a designated hitter, then possibly continue to hit as a pitcher. Whatever Ohtani and the Angels decide, All-Star manager Kevin Cash can’t wait to deploy him in the American League dugout.
‘‘It’s probably the most talked-about thing in the game right now,’’ said Cash, who watched Ohtani rip a 453-foot homer off the catwalk last weekend inside Tampa Bay’s dungeon. ‘‘You see Trout not playing and Ohtani has kind of come in and, for all the comments that Mike gets, for good reason, Ohtani is now getting them. Nobody else can do what he does. Both sides of the ball.”
Of course, knowing his health history and how freakish athletes tend to fade, we could be talking in three years about a burnout case. Babe Ruth, for all his debauchery and hot dogs, played 22 major-league seasons and hit 714 homers. Shohei Ohtani, given his self-induced workload, might be fortunate to last half as long. Or, he can prove everyone wrong again.
Which is why Sho Time must be embraced, here and now. When you’re seeing something you might never see again, you drop everything in life and just stare. As the kids say, this is the essence of why we fear missing out.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.