TEMPE, Ariz. — In a hotel conference room, sitting atop a butte in the heart of the Valley of the Sun, near the elbow where Interstate 10 from Tucson bends west toward Phoenix, with some 200 observers looking on, satellite trucks sitting side by side in the parking lot and the television feed going live both in the United States, where it was Wednesday afternoon, and in Japan, where it was Thursday morning, the game of baseball took a massive evolutionary leap forward.
That, more than anything else, is what made Shohei Ohtani’s first appearance in a Los Angeles Angels uniform, and the news conference that followed — on the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers — such a media event. American baseball, which has existed for roughly a century and a half, has seen Japanese superstars before. Every spring, it sees great pitchers joining new teams and great hitters taking their first cuts in the batting cage.
But until now, it had never seen all of those things in one human being. And the curiosity factor with Ohtani, beginning with the burning question — Can he actually pull off being a full-time, two-way player at the highest level of the game? — is overwhelming, if Wednesday’s outsized media horde is any indication. It has been a long time since this ancient game has seen something completely new — or at least something that hasn’t been attempted in any meaningful way since Babe Ruth himself some 100 years ago — and life around the Angels, it appears, is going to be pretty crowded for the foreseeable future.
“Honestly, since my days in Japan, I’ve really never felt the pressure everyone talks about,” Ohtani, 23, said through an interpreter. “I just go out and do my job and try to help the team win. If I can make fans happy by playing my hardest, I think that’s the best outcome possible.”
No, Ohtani doesn’t have much to say, at least not in this language. He either got a quick lesson from new teammate Mike Trout, another notable superstar with an aversion for introspection or candor, or he shares the same traits.
“Once I put on my new jersey, the Angels’ jersey,” he said at one point, “I felt like this was going to be a new year.”
Ohtani’s body language, on the other hand, was plenty revealing. He entered the room confidently, to a soundtrack of camera clicks, and folded his 6-foot-4, 203-pound frame into a chair next to his interpreter. He wore red shorts, sneakers and a red Angels warmup jacket. From his babyish face, he cracked bemused smiles from time to time. As each question was asked — whether in Japanese or English — and as he answered, he looked each questioner in the eye the entire time.
“I pretty much like any and every type of food,” he said to a question about missing Japanese cuisine. “So I’m not having any trouble.”
There remains some sense of mystery around the sport as to how Ohtani came to choose the Angels — a team that runs a distant second to the Dodgers in its own media market and hasn’t won a playoff series in nearly a decade — and that mystery got no closer to an answer Wednesday. It certainly wasn’t the money. Ohtani was limited in his earnings by MLB’s international bonus-pool restrictions and would be locked in at the major league minimum salary, $545,000, no matter where he went.
A two-way superstar for five years with the Nippon Ham Fighters, where he came to be known as the Babe Ruth of Japan, he made the decision to come to the United States for 2018 — forgoing the nine-figure windfall he almost certainly would have received by waiting two more years and coming over as an unrestricted free agent — and whittled his choices down to seven finalists before selecting the Angels two months ago. At the time, he said he simply felt a degree of comfort with the team from his meetings with its front office. On Wednesday, he did not wish to elaborate.
“I knew someone would ask this question,” he said in one of the few instances of genuine emotion — frustration — that he showed. “I don’t want to talk about why I joined the Angels.” Eventually, he added, “You guys will find out why I chose the Angels and why it was the right choice.”
A right-handed pitcher with a fastball sometimes clocked at 100 mph and a left-handed batter who hit 22 homers in Japan as a 21-year-old in 2016 — he missed much of 2017 with an ankle injury that required surgery in October — Ohtani will keep to a strict schedule with the Angels. The plan is to install him at the top of a six-man starting rotation, with three or four days a week spent as a designated hitter in their lineup. This spring, in addition to all the standard goals of building up strength and stamina, will be about honing that schedule.
“There’s going to be a lot of resources we have to get him ready,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia told reporters after the team’s morning workout Wednesday.
Scioscia left little doubt as to how the Angels will prioritize Ohtani’s workload, his time and his value to the team.
“He’s going to get the most looks as a pitcher,” Scioscia said. “If he can pitch to his capabilities, that will influence your team more than what he would do hitting. But that’s not to say he won’t have a chance to be a difference-maker on the offensive end, too.”
Asked about Scioscia’s comments and his interactions with his new manager, Ohtani said, “First of all he always tells me to enjoy the game. That’s the first thing he says. We’ll be communicating. He is willing to listen to what I have to say. I will have some input in my role.”
On Wednesday, Ohtani donned a No. 17 Angels uniform and took batting practice on the field, with some Japanese media members recording each swing — there were 37 of them, one reported. On Thursday, he will throw his first bullpen session, and by early next week he will begin facing live hitters.
Each new step will be a media event, culminating with Opening Day, March 29 at the Oakland Athletics.
Why the Angels? Why this year? How long can he succeed as both a pitcher and a hitter? Which role might he play at July’s All-Star Game in Washington? Some of those questions may never be answered, and some may be in time.
But for now, it is best to just sit back and enjoy. No one in baseball has tried anything like this, let alone succeeded at it, in a good long while.
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