MIAMI — The great tragedy of Shohei Ohtani’s major league career — and after watching him in the World Baseball Classic final, tragedy only feels like a minor overstatement — is that he has never had the chance to put a team on his shoulders in October.
Japan’s two-way star provided the hardest-hit ball of the entire tournament, 118.7 mph, per MLB research. He threw what tied for the hardest pitch of the tournament, 102 mph. He hit one of the longest homers of the tournament — 448 feet.
And he also delivered the most memorable speech of the WBC, when he addressed his teammates before Tuesday’s final against the United States, reminding them that the only way to beat the Americans was to stop admiring them and see them as equals.
“[Winning] doesn’t mean that we achieved a final goal, but this is just a passing point,” Ohtani said through an interpreter after Japan’s 3-2 win. “Our team has just started. I think we need to tune up for the future.”
Ohtani’s pregame speech:— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) March 22, 2023
“Let’s stop admiring them… 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.”
(h/t @dylanohernandez) pic.twitter.com/hh441AaAzJ
This is Ohtani — onto the next, pushing for more when he has it all. That his Los Angeles Angels have not played in October, that he has been doomed to meaningless late-summer baseball throughout his MLB career, masks the fire that burned so brightly over the past two weeks. And it never gleamed brighter than when he faced Angels teammate and annual MVP candidate Mike Trout with two outs in the ninth inning Tuesday.
“He’s a competitor, man,” Trout said. “That’s why he’s the best.”
Ohtani has told reporters in the past that playing baseball his way — pitching and hitting, as only he can — is how he expresses himself. He is not verbose, and at times is relentlessly uninteresting, when he talks to the media. But he is also direct, pointed and unwavering in his goals.
For example, when asked what he hopes the next step in his career will be after winning WBC MVP honors, Ohtani was not reflective.
“Of course the new season will begin, so that will be the first one,” he said through an interpreter. “Of course I’m going to have to start winning, and that will be the next step.”
Seeing Ohtani play with a chance to win, watching his face with the game on the line, made clear to anyone who had not seen it during his time with the Angels just how much winning means to him.
“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,” U.S. Manager Mark DeRosa said. “He is a unicorn to the sport. I think other guys will try it, but I don’t think they’re going to do it to his level.”
The 28-year-old will be a free agent after this season. He has said multiple times in recent years that he is frustrated that the Angels do not win. But to watch him come alive in the WBC — to watch him sprinting down the first base line to beat out a groundball, calling himself safe as he hustled past the bag — is to believe he is desperate to win, for the chance to play games that matter, day after day.
“He’s so diligent and he works so hard and he’s so meticulous about how he goes about his business,” Japan outfielder Lars Nootbaar said. “It’s not a surprise that he’s obviously extremely talented, but he kind of gets the most out of his ability, too, with how he works.”
Ohtani is scheduled to start Opening Day for the Angels against the Oakland Athletics, a game between teams not necessarily expected to contend in their division, let alone for a title. He will not have the chance to walk in from the bullpen like a boxer entering the ring. He will not play in front of packed stadiums every day. If all WBC players will return to banality, Ohtani could find himself returning to something even worse if the Angels do not transform into winners this season. He could find himself playing meaningless baseball, chasing numbers that matter only to him, stoic and regimented and unable to soar.
Perhaps the Angels will take off this year, just in time to convince him that he can play meaningful baseball with them for years to come. Meaningful baseball is where Ohtani belongs, where he thrives, where he expands to his full potential. And as the WBC made clear, Shohei Ohtani playing meaningful baseball lights up the entire baseball world.