Discover more from The Sports Column
SAY IT OUT LOUD, AMERICA: SHOHEI OHTANI IS THE GREATEST ATHLETE ALIVE
We tend to be snobbish about the great ones, if not xenophobic, but after he struck out Mike Trout and dominated the World Baseball Classic, there is no disputing the preeminence of the two-way legend
With deepest apologies to Kevin Costner, Cooperstown, Abner Doubleday’s progeny and the writers who treat every game like a poetry slam, I have two pronouncements about baseball and America. First, the sport no longer is our domain, much less our pastime. It can’t be when a World Baseball Classic is staged, on U.S. soil, and attracts only a smattering of eyeballs compared to stunning TV numbers in other countries, such as Japan, which averaged 62 million viewers in the group stage and oodles more for the championship final.
And, as importantly, the greatest athlete who plays on our shores is not Patrick Mahomes, LeBron James or anyone else of American citizenship, or anybody who plays our most prominent games, football and basketball. The greatest athlete in sports — and the most evolutionary, maybe in our time on Earth — is Shohei Ohtani. When he struck out his seasonal teammate, Mike Trout, in an all-time theatrical collision that clinched the WBC title for Japan, the totality of his transcendence crystalized in the night and blew us away.
“I thought it was like a manga,” teammate Kazuma Okamoto said, “like a comic book."
Except, he’s real. He throws 102-mph heat. He crushes 500-foot home runs. You say Lionel Messi? The soccer G.O.A.T. scores goals but doesn’t stop shots as a goaltender. You say Mahomes? I say he’s a quarterbacking magician who doesn’t play on defense. To call Ohtani the most dominant two-way athlete in sports history — keeping in mind that Babe Ruth’s duality was only temporary, that Bo Jackson’s was cut short by injuries, that Deion Sanders was more show than Shohei — somehow downplays his grandeur. It’s time we acknowledge this in America, where we tend to be snobs about the great ones, even xenophobic, no one worse than Stephen A. Smith, who once said of Ohtani on ESPN: “When you talk about an audience gravitating to the tube or to the ballpark to actually watch you, I don’t think it helps that the No. 1 face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying, in this country.”
Smith should double-down on his apology to the “dude” — do it on “First Take,” in fact — and accept Ohtani’s preeminence. Consider that he set up a wild walk-off celebration in the semifinals with a leadoff double in the ninth inning, after which he flexed and waved his arms while screaming into his dugout. An evening later, he needed only 14 pitches to shut down the most potent baseball lineup ever assembled, retiring Mookie Betts on a double-play ball and whiffing Trout with a slider. As the plate, he batted .435 and slugged .739 with a homer, four doubles, eight runs batted in, nine runs and 10 walks in the seven-game sweep. As a pitcher, he won both his starts, posted a 1.86 earned-run average and recorded the save of all saves, in his first closing appearance since 2016. He was the WBC.
He is baseball. He is sports.
“What he's doing in the game is what probably 90 percent of the guys in that clubhouse did in Little League or in youth tournaments, and he's able to pull it off on the biggest stages,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said. “He is a unicorn to the sport.”
His leadership, too, overwhelmed the scene. Ohtani did not care that the U.S. roster was valued at $2.05 billion in the Major League Baseball economy. Before the championship game in the clubhouse, he told his teammates, “From me, just one thing. Let’s stop admiring them. (Paul) Goldschmidt will be at first base; if you look at center, Mike Trout is there; Mookie Betts is in the outfield. There are players known by anyone who plays baseball. For just one day ... if you admire them, you can’t surpass them. We came here to surpass them, to reach the top. For one day, let’s throw away our admiration for them and just think about winning.”
They did just that, inspired by his words and his performance, giving their troubled homeland relief from financial angst, North Korea’s nuclear threats and China’s standing as a world power. Before Shohei, America was presumed as the planet’s leading baseball nation. Before Shohei, Trout was presumed as the face of the sport and, of course, the Los Angeles Angels. Now, Japan has won three of the last five WBC titles, and Shohei is the king of all spheres, mostly the one covered in horsehide and wrapped in yarn.
“I believe this is the best moment in my life," Ohtani said.
He’s only 28. Imagine what’s ahead.
“It didn’t come out the way I wanted to, but, as a baseball fan, I think that’s what everyone wanted to see,” Trout said. “He won Round 1.”
“The guy’s Superman,” said Lars Nootbaar, who played for Japan as an ode to his mother’s ancestry. “I’m out there playing outfield and I’m tired and he's going back and forth throwing pitches in the ’pen, running back, striding out base hits, hitting the ball 114 (mph). It's make-believe stuff that kids dream about. … He’s playing a different game than everybody else is. That’s what I’ve learned these two weeks, that there may never be anything like this again.”
If it wasn’t apparent before Tuesday night in Miami, please understand the magnitude of the transformative experience in our midst. It’s a life joy based only 40 miles from where I live in Los Angeles, across a weave of freeways I will navigate much more than my usual excursions to Dodger Stadium, SoFi Stadium, the House that Kobe built and Shaq shook, the Hollywood Bowl and everywhere else I go to be entertained. Taylor Swift will play her 44 songs for a series of nights in August. Metallica is coming. Beyonce is here in September, Springsteen in December. WrestleMania 39 is here next month. So is Willie Nelson, celebrating his 90th birthday, God bless him. Don’t forget Coachella, though I’d like to.
In the capital of entertainment — home of the Super Bowl, the Olympics, Oscars, Grammys, studios, soundstages — no one is bigger now than Ohtani. OK, maybe the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” craze is slightly bigger. When he first arrived in Anaheim, five years ago, I purchased a red cap at the ballpark with his No. 17 and name. Have I ever made a better investment? What is the cap worth today?
The better question: What is Ohtani worth today? Before the WBC, his value as an impending free agent was pegged at $500 million, at least. Now that he has electrified the world, at an event that captured large audiences in Asia and south of the U.S. border, might that figure bump to $750 million? Commissioner Rob Manfred has fantasies of growing and monetizing the event as a World Cup of sorts, impossible as long as the WBC is played before the MLB season — when America largely doesn’t care — and restricts the availability of top pitchers. But if he has any chance of seizing an international opportunity after so many sensational games and heart-thumping conclusions, Ohtani will be at the forefront starting in 2026.
Meanwhile, Shohei must make like the Disneyland tourists and get the hell out of Anaheim. After his epic moment, he looked ahead and told reporters through his interpreter, “The season is about to start. I think the next step is to win in the postseason, the World Series.” Problem is, as long as Arte Moreno owns the Angels, October glory is a pipedream. The Ohtani-Trout era has been wasted, not only in southern California but within MLB and the TV networks. After what we just saw in Miami, you don’t think fans would watch the Angels if they ever reached the playoffs? They’ve missed in all five of Ohtani’s years and have reached only once in Trout’s 12 seasons, swept in a divisional series in 2014. Moreno, who put the team up for sale last year before changing his mind, should be begging Ohtani to sign. Instead, he refuses to promise that Ohtani won’t be traded this summer and doesn’t sound like a man willing to grovel, as most owners would.
“He’s arguably the most unique player. Probably one of the top five or 10 players,” said Moreno, grossly underselling his commodity. “It’s business, but we’re going to sit down. Ohtani has to want to be here, too. It’s a two-way street. When we started talking to Mike, I spent a lot of time with Mike. I just said, ‘You have to make a decision. This is where you want to be. This is where you want your family to be.’ We started sitting down with the agent. And Ohtani, he has to figure out if this is where he wants to be.”
Why would he want to be in Anaheim when upward mobility is his for the taking? You don’t think the Dodgers and their Guggenheim Baseball ownership are salivating, knowing they can augment their already ample fan base with the Japanese and global appeal of Ohtani? What about Peter Seidler in San Diego, who apparently is willing to spend his entire $3 billion net worth on expensive ballplayers? Steve Cohen at Citi Field? Hal Steinbrenner at Yankee Stadium?
Shohei Ohtani can name his price and his destination. Why be Mr. March when he can be Mr. October? “I’d think it would be the ultimate year if I can surpass, or approach, this,” he said, “at the end of the season.”
Until that happens, in another place, he’ll have to be content as a manga, a unicorn and maybe the best thing we’ve seen in sports.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.