SEATTLE – If you dropped by T-Mobile Park this week and didn’t know the MLB All-Star Game was being held there, you might guess that Shohei Ohtani convened a meeting of baseball’s brightest to determine who was worthy was to become his teammate. That impression, however, had little to do with Ohtani, who seemed less interested in the subject of himself than his competitors (suitors?).
See, Ohtani plays baseball in a way that could better be described as “creating living history” than “hitting homers” or “throwing well” or even “counting beaucoups of wins over substitution.” He does all those things, of course, and that’s the incredible thing. He leads baseball with 32 homers and a 1,050 OPS at the All-Star break, while also recording 100 1/3 innings of 3.32 ERA ball as a starting pitcher.
This is a player whose performance has made Babe Ruth comparisons passé – not because he was outrageous, but because he failed to grasp the scope of his two-way greatness. He’s also currently doing these things for the perpetually mediocre Los Angeles Angels as the scope of his career becomes clear and a momentous decision about his future looms ever larger on the horizon.
He’s half a season away from a blank uniform and a blank check.
It is almost guaranteed that Ohtani will enter the open market of free agency at the end of the season. There’s a chance (albeit a slim and publicly downplayed chance) that he’s less than a month away from switching teams in a blockbuster trade as the Angels – currently 45-46 and five games back from the last AL wildcard spot – reeling further amid a flurry of injuries, including a recent big one from Mike Trout.
As it stands, there’s nothing but speculation to spark Ohtani’s dreams in colors other than red and white, but that’s enough when Ohtani’s game brings the heat. This week, Seattle storefronts posted signs and sidewalk signs reading “Free Shohei” and Ohtani’s every move, every interaction in a sea of great players, every utterance became a tea leaf.
Despite being nominally a division rival, he received the loudest ovation of any non-Mariners player in pregame introductions for the All-Star Game, a 3–2 win for the National League. Prior to his at bats, the Seattle crowd erupted in crystal-clear chant that eschewed any embarrassment or subtlety.
“Come to Seattle!” [clap, clap, clap clap clap]
“Come to Seattle!” [clap, clap, clap clap clap]
When Ohtani spoke to reporters after leaving the game, he made Seattle’s hearts beat faster by mentioning that he has spent time here during the off-season.
Other players wearing All-Star uniforms this week couldn’t go so heavy handed with their stupid speeches. After all, fans can’t be accused of tampering. Freddie Freeman — first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are widely rumored to be gearing up for an Ohtani chase — was recorded during the chant for the Fox broadcast, yet he smoothly fell back on what appears to be the party line.
“I’m going with all 30 teams that want Shohei on their team,” he said.
Without any direct appeal, other All-Stars professed a level of respect for Ohtani’s abilities that tilts to awe as he races through his third season of two-way singularity.
Josh Jung, the Texas Rangers rookie third baseman who earned a spot on the AL team, said Monday that if he could take one skill from a player in baseball for himself, he would boast Ohtani’s strength. Shane McClanahan, the Tampa Bay Rays ace who may have to fend off Ohtani for a Cy Young Award, called Ohtani’s sweeper one of his most coveted throws.
Alex Cobb, the veteran San Francisco Giants starter who earned his first All-Star berth this season with a 2.91 ERA through 16 starts, gushed about his former teammate and gave an unconventional reason why Ohtani is the All-Star he prefers want to. face in an exhibition setting.
“There aren’t many situations where if you’re the pitcher on the mound and you fail, you’re expected to fail,” said Cobb. “But I feel like he owns everyone so much that if he does what he does it’s expected, but if you take him out, you’re the hero there.”
Zac Gallen, the ace of the Arizona Diamondbacks who started for the NL on Tuesday, did just that and struckout Ohtani. To hear him tell it, it was more about self-preservation in the moment.
“I mean, you had this audience, standing ovation, the place went crazy,” Gallen said afterwards. “So I’m like, ‘Man, if I serve this guy a homer, the place will blow up.'”
However, that didn’t stop Gallen from immediately acknowledging his achievement.
“I threw it out,” he said of the ball, which made its way to his cloak. “They probably looked at me like, ‘What is this guy doing?'”
By the way, Cobb did face Ohtani in the fourth inning. He gave him a walk.
Fellow players’ admiration for Ohtani’s brain-bending excellence goes nowhere. But by then next season, when the All-Star Game arrives in Dallas, we’ll have a better stress test of Ohtani’s transcendence among fans. He will necessarily have rejected 29 teams, some more directly than others.
Will he somehow rise above the sport’s typical tribal divides, in addition to destroying the seemingly unbreakable barrier between throwing and hitting?
It’s tempting to see this as a reflection of the Angels, a team that has found a way to house unparalleled individual performers without posing a real threat to their rivals. Maybe it is, or maybe it was that to begin with. But now, with sky-high homers, dominant splitters, and signature expressive body language, Ohtani seems to hold the entire baseball world in the palm of his hand.
Or, perhaps more accurately, the baseball world holds, recognizes and struggles to grasp the glory of a gem never seen before.