Around 2:30 a.m. on April 7, Yuichi Matsushita, a baseball writer for Japan’s Kyodo News Service, closed his laptop in the press box of Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., and trudged toward the parking lot. He took note of the fact there was one other Japanese journalist still working, some four hours after the conclusion of that night’s Los Angeles Angels-Oakland Athletics game, and took small comfort in the knowledge he hadn’t closed down the press box again.
But that comfort was short-lived. There was still the long drive to his Los Angeles-area home, and there would be an alarm going off a few hours later, at 8 a.m., so that he could jump out of bed and start writing — on a tight deadline in Tokyo — his next story about Japanese two-way sensation and Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani.
“I’m so tired,” Matsushita said Wednesday, with the 2018 baseball season just two weeks old. “Sometimes it’s too much.”
Ohtani’s scorching, historic debut in Major League Baseball — he entered Saturday with a 2-0 record and 2.08 ERA in two starts as a pitcher and a .367 batting average, .424 on-base percentage and .767 slugging percentage in 33 plate appearances as a hitter — has been a boon for both the Angels, who were in first place in the American League West division, and for baseball fans across Japan, where there is a voracious appetite for news about the Pacific League’s 2016 MVP and the latest in a long line of Japanese superstars to play in America.
But Ohtani’s sizzling start has been a mixed blessing for the pack of Japanese journalists — numbering as many as 120 for his first two starts as a pitcher and dropping to a corps of around 50 for most road games — assigned to document his every move, chronicle his every performance and dissect his every pitch and swing. While they can’t help but feel a rush of adrenaline as Ohtani’s story explodes, both on these shores and in Japan, sometimes that adrenaline is all the fuel they’re running on.
Matsushita, for example, has seen his output swell from two or three stories a day during spring training to seven or eight on the days Ohtani pitches. He has editors breathing down his neck at all hours. He’s getting three or four hours of sleep per night. His days and weeks are inextricably tied to the Angels’ schedule. He barely sees his wife or dog. He must deal with the rigors of travel, the snarl of Southern California traffic and the fear of getting scooped by a rival.
Asked which day has been the craziest so far, Matsushita sighed and said, “I don’t know. Every day is the craziest.”
It’s like being an American baseball writer, except his entire beat is one player.
No media equivalent in U.S.
Ever since Hideo Nomo debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 and ushered in the modern era of Japanese superstars in MLB, the Japanese media has chronicled each player’s exploits — Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka garnering the most attention — with a type of blanket coverage that has no real equivalent in American media.
If Tom Brady or LeBron James or Bryce Harper suddenly decided to play overseas, likely no more than a handful of U.S. media outlets would be willing to spend the money it would take to provide full-time coverage. Perhaps the closest American comparison would be Serena Williams or peak-era Tiger Woods — if every day was Wimbledon or the British Open.
“I think the attention from us [on each Japanese player] is the same, but the attention from American people is totally different,” said Hideki Okuda, a veteran journalist for Sports Nippon who started on the Nomo beat in 1997 and has been in the United States ever since. “When Ichiro came, not many people in the U.S. knew that much about him, but Matsuzaka was bigger because [he played for] the Boston Red Sox. If you want to compare Ohtani, it’s similar to Matsuzaka — but Ohtani can attract even more attention because he is a two-way player.”
Okuda’s primary assignment in recent years has been pitcher Yu Darvish, and that brought its own set of logistical issues: When Darvish was traded last summer from the Texas Rangers to the Los Angeles Dodgers, so, in effect, was Okuda. And when Darvish, via free agency, joined the Chicago Cubs in February, so did Okuda.
Asked about the difficulty of covering one player every single day, Okuda said, “I think it’s more difficult for one person to cover 25 players, the manager, the GM and everything. I don’t think my assignment is more difficult than American reporters’. Sometimes I feel like I want to cover everybody, but I have to write what the Japanese people are interested in. Japanese people love baseball, but they’re interested mainly in Japanese players.”
When the Angels signed Ohtani in December — ending a mad scramble among big league teams for arguably the most coveted international player in history — they got more than a dual-threat pitcher and hitter. They got a marketing and media sensation, an athlete pegged as the “Babe Ruth of Japan.” They got an influx of hundreds of media credential requests from Japanese outlets.
And they got an impending logistical nightmare — one that would pit the sheer size and requirements of the Japanese media and the team’s own desire to tell its story to a new audience against the limitations of physical space and the need to protect a 23-year-old rookie whose transition to America was going to be difficult enough already.
The job of navigating that nightmare has fallen largely to Angels vice president of communications Tim Mead, who thankfully doesn’t view it as such.
“We’re seeing history,” said Mead, who has been with the Angels since 1980. “At some point, whether you’re in the media or someone on the staff of the club, you have to take a step back and say, ‘You know what? This is going to be challenging, but it’s also going to be exciting. . . . We’re looking at it as we’re just going to have a larger media contingent. Our following has just grown.”
Almost immediately, the Angels hired Ippei Mizuhara, Ohtani’s longtime friend and interpreter, as their official interpreter and coaxed Grace McNamee — a Japanese American who served as the Dodgers’ Japanese media liaison during the Nomo era (1995 to 1998) — out of retirement to fill the same role for them.
They constructed a giant tent beyond the left field wall at the team’s spring training headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., to accommodate the overflow media. And they organized a meeting of Ohtani and his representatives, Mead and his media relations staffers, General Manager Billy Eppler and members of the team’s field staff to outline a detailed, specific plan that would govern Ohtani’s media schedule and the access rules for the journalists who would be covering him.
Among the rules: no pregame media sessions. And no one-on-one interviews. Japanese media are encouraged to stay out of the clubhouse, which is typically open to the media several hours before first pitch, unless they have specific questions for Ohtani’s teammates — an edict that provoked few protests from Japanese reporters because clubhouses in Japan are uniformly closed to the media.
Still, Ohtani meets with the media — first a generally small English-language session, translated by Mizuhara, then one with the larger Japanese contingent — after every game in which he appears. It is a concession that not even the biggest American superstars have to make. Even Mike Trout, Ohtani’s superstar teammate and two-time MVP center fielder, typically gets left alone after, say, a 1-for-4 night in a losing effort.
“We have to remember there’s an entire country following his every move,” Mead said of Ohtani. “We have a responsibility to help facilitate that, and we recognize that — and Shohei recognizes that.”
Different kind of coverage
Though there are exceptions — including tabloid reporters and photographers who seem obsessed with exposing Ohtani’s dating life, so far with fruitless results — the majority of Japanese journalists are focused, with relentless thoroughness and precision, on the granular details of his every move on a baseball field. If Ohtani throws a bullpen session, they chart each pitch and ask to speak to the bullpen catcher. If he hits in the batting cage, they estimate how many swings produced home runs and ask to speak to the batting-practice pitcher. In their daily briefings with Manager Mike Scioscia, they ask specific questions about Ohtani’s practice schedule, his workload, his performance.
“The way they cover the game is different,” said Los Angeles Times sports columnist Dylan Hernandez, a fluent Japanese speaker whose mother is from Japan and who has traveled there to write long pieces about Ohtani’s background. “We’re more interested in the person. Most of us would say we cover people, not games. They really cover the game. You notice a shift in questions. With us, it’s always, ‘How did you feel? What did you think about this? What’s your relationship like with your dad?’ With them, it’s more, ‘Why did you throw the 2-0 slider? What kind of adjustment did you make on the splitter?’
“The tone they take is different. The way they view it is, these athletes are leaving the country to come over here and represent Japan, and [the reporters] are here to send that news back home: ‘This guy is over here to represent you. To make you proud.’ ”
It’s a good thing most in the Japanese media are uninterested in going deep into Ohtani’s psyche because even to them he is a bit of a mystery. Coming up in Japan, because of his youth and inherent shyness, he was largely sheltered from the media. Most of the journalists assigned to him here have had no personal interactions with him other than exchanging pleasantries.
For years, it has been tradition for Japanese players to go to dinner with the media members who cover them a couple of times per season, but it has become clear that won’t happen with Ohtani. (“He’s not that type of person,” said Matsushita, who was the beat writer for Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters when Ohtani played for them.) While Ichiro had some well-known eccentricities and Matsui always was willing to hang out after games, the Japanese media know little about what makes Ohtani tick.
“In some ways, this is a real difficult job for them,” said the Los Angeles Times’ Hernandez. “They’re dealing with the biggest story for their country — this guy might change baseball, and there would be no bigger story. But at the same time, they’re dealing with all these obstacles and restrictions.”
Under these difficult conditions, it’s no wonder the competition for even the most minute of scoops is constant and intense.
Wataru Serizawa, also of the Kyodo News Service, recalled the frantic chase to spot Ohtani in early December, once word arrived that he would be signing with the Angels. Reporters flocked to Angel Stadium, thinking Ohtani would go there to meet with team officials, and to local hospitals, thinking he might show up to take a physical exam.
Serizawa was staking out the Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Los Angeles, hoping Ohtani would visit there to meet with his agents. “I don’t think anyone actually thought we’d find him there,” Serizawa said. “But we had to be there to make sure that our rivals didn’t either.” After a few hours, he had finally given up and called an Uber to catch a ride to Anaheim, when an SUV pulled into the driveway and out of it came Ohtani.
Serizawa came away with one decent picture of Ohtani in the CAA building and one throwaway quote: “There’s nothing [I can say].”
But the beast, with its voracious appetite, still needed to be fed, and a single bland and tiny crumb was better than nothing at all. The next morning, the photo and the quote, such as they were, made the front page of many of the largest newspapers in Japan, a small taste of victory in a long and grueling race.
This gray-haired 32-year-old rookie spent 10 years in the minors. His NBA debut was too good to believe.