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Shohei Ohtani is the star that baseball never knew it needed

Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani delivers in the first inning of Tuesday's MLB All-Star Game in Denver. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

DENVER — Major League Baseball changes slowly, little by little, year after year, generation by generation. Faces and philosophies change. Skills improve, and so does strength. Rarely, if ever, does something happen that seems as unlikely to happen in the first place as it does to happen again.

But after more than a century of major league history, Shohei Ohtani is that unlikelihood, a completely new prototype, an international superstar who can pitch and hit and run better than most of his peers can pitch or hit or run.

This year’s All-Star Game, the 91st in major league history, was a celebration of a return to normalcy after last year’s was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic. It was a source of political controversy, having been moved from Atlanta in April after Georgia passed a sweeping voting law. And it was a setting for experimentation, the first time in history MLB moved its draft to all-star week.

But for all that was happening around it, for all the sticky stuff that has consumed this season, this All-Star Game belonged to Ohtani. He was knocked out in the first round of the Home Run Derby on Monday night. He threw a scoreless inning and went 0 for 2 on Tuesday. He wasn’t the highlight of either event, but he was in the spotlight for all of it.

The American League won Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, 5-2. Ohtani, who started the game on the mound, was in it when his team took the lead for good. He therefore became the first player in major league history to compete in the Home Run Derby and earn a win in the All-Star Game. He became the first leadoff man to throw a 100-mph fastball in the All-Star Game. He became the first Japanese player to compete in the derby. With his mere presence, the 27-year-old Los Angeles Angels star injected new life into the kind of annual tradition that needs a jolt now and then. He’s the kind of player baseball never knew it needed until he arrived.

Ohtani wasn’t the only fresh star on display Tuesday. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. nearly decapitated Max Scherzer with a line drive in the first inning, only to jog over and hug him after he was thrown out at first. Scherzer ultimately threw a 1-2-3 inning. Guerrero earned All-Star Game MVP honors — at 22, he’s the youngest MVP ever — with a 486-foot moonshot in his next at-bat, a swing that left fellow young star Fernando Tatis Jr. covering his head with his glove in disbelief.

First-time all-star Mike Zunino smashed a home run. First-time all-star Cedric Mullins scored a run. Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto homered, too. San Diego Padres star Manny Machado scampered home on a passed ball, blowing a bubble gum bubble for much of his dash.

But when fellow all-stars took selfies to remember it all, they clamored for Ohtani. When the television cameras needed somewhere to look, they often found Ohtani, who wore a mic during the game. He was a source of global fascination unlike any this sport has seen in recent memory.

“Simply, I’m just happy for that,” Ohtani said, through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, when asked about how he is handling the crush of attention. But there is nothing simple about the attention Ohtani draws and the pressure it puts on his shoulders. No one ever had as busy of an all-star week as he had.

At times during the Home Run Derby, Ohtani was doubled over, hands on his knees, gasping for breath. Afterward, just hours before he was going to start the All-Star Game on the mound, a reporter asked him why he wanted to do all of it, why he felt the need to say yes to everything when so many other players opt out of the game altogether — or at least skip the derby.

“I think a lot of people back home in Japan wanted to see this happen,” he said. “I wanted to see it personally happen. It’s the first time a Japanese guy has been doing this.”

It is, quite frankly, the first time any guy has been doing this. Ohtani joked Monday that all he needed to do to recover was sleep as much as he could before Tuesday. He said he slept until 10:30 a.m. before heading to the field, where he again was at the center of it all, reaching back for a little extra on his fastball — by design, he said. After all, he only had to pitch one inning.

“I’m definitely a lot more tired than the rest of the regular season,” he said. “But if everyone had fun, then I’m all good.”

Keeping everyone happy is a less obvious part of what it means to be unprecedented, and Ohtani conducts himself like a man who knows the eyes of the world are focused on him.

After every outing, and after every activity this week, Ohtani holds two news conferences — one with English-speaking media, one with Japanese reporters. He is self-deprecating, and he joked Tuesday that he wasn’t surprised the National League shifted on him because teams do it in the regular season and he always seems to hit it to the guy who shifted.

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Asked Monday about his message to fans in Japan who would be getting up early to watch him in the derby, Ohtani suggested they should be watching all eight players who would be competing, not just him.

Before he stepped into the batter’s box to begin Tuesday’s game, Ohtani paused to wave at the NL dugout. Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts took off his cap and waved it back, a perfect embodiment of the respect Ohtani gives and earns in a fraternity that can be slow to give it.

After he knocked Ohtani out of the derby, Washington Nationals star Juan Soto said, “I feel we both win, and I hope we can do that again.” After facing him for the first time Tuesday, Scherzer, the Nationals ace, said his only plan for Ohtani was to “throw everything,” and he admitted he was surprised by his stature.

“At any given time, he most likely has the most power, the most velocity, the most speed on the field. To have all those attributes in one player, it’s so good for the game, and it’s inspiring to watch,” New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole said. “We don’t start as pitchers only or position players only; we all want to do both. ... There’s a simplicity to him, just being able to fulfill that dream. Even as a pitcher now or as a hitter, a certain inner child in us would love to do all of it. He’s doing it.”

Cole was one of the few to find words to describe Ohtani this week, but he wasn’t the only one to try. Nearly every player on both teams was asked about Ohtani at some point. Many of them found themselves explaining how utterly impossible it was to explain what they were watching. Baseball leadership struggled, too.

“I can honestly tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it,” MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark said.

“I literally can’t say another word that hasn’t been said or written about what Shohei Ohtani has done. It kind of speaks for itself,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said.

The numbers help explain it. Ohtani leads the majors in homers at the all-star break (33) and is the first player in major league history to hit 30 homers and steal at least 12 bases before the Midsummer Classic. Only seven players in history have hit more than his 33 first-half homers. And he is pitching to a 3.49 ERA.

Baseball clings to its heroes, passes them down from generation to generation, uses them to show how things used to be and how far they have — or have not — come. Comparisons give context. In the case of Ohtani, there are none.

The closest player may be Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who spent his entire career pitching and hitting, earned six Negro Leagues all-star bids — three as a pitcher, three as a catcher — and was still competing a full decade after Babe Ruth retired. But Radcliffe retired 75 years ago, long before innovations in physical training and more nuanced skill training birthed an era in which a 95-mph fastball is the norm and prolific power no longer guarantees stardom. Ohtani is, in that sense, unprecedented.

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He is also, in some sense, unthinkable: After the game Tuesday, Ohtani admitted he was intimidated by all of the stars around him, the ones who spent all week talking about him — the ones who can’t believe their eyes when they watch him.

“Once I got to talk to them, everyone was nice,” he said, implying that he didn’t know how he would be received by his peers, many of whom will tell their children about the night they shared a dugout with the legendary Shohei Ohtani, a player the likes of which they had never seen before and may never see again.