Could Shohei Ohtani be a bigger baseball star?


LOS ANGELES — Shortly after Denzel Washington read a tribute to Jackie Robinson and just before Clayton Kershaw delivered the first pitch of a sentimental All-Star Game at his home park, all eyes were on the big Dodger Stadium screen, watching Shohei Ohtani.

A packed stadium and national TV audience waited to hear what Ohtani would say in a short pre-match interview. No one can blame the Los Angeles Angels star for his reluctance to speak a second language to what can be a ruthless media cohort. But everyone – from fans to opposing players – was thrilled to hear him say anything.

“First pitch, full swing. That’s it,” Ohtani said with a smile, six remarkable words because of what he did next: first pitch, full swing, base hit in the middle – a shot called like the one ingrained in the legend of 20th century star double-decker Babe Ruth.

Ohtani is so good, so distinct, and so legendary that people in his camp and in the industry wonder if he’s appreciated enough. They wonder if his tenure in baseball purgatory with the Angels is ruining the sport’s chances of having a mainstream star the likes of which it hasn’t had in decades at a time when they believe it needs one the most. .

As Major League Baseball returns from the all-star break, it does so in a prolonged state of worry – about what it once was and what it should be, what it isn’t. not now and what it should become. The staging of the first night of the draft in downtown Los Angeles was an attempt to mirror the scale of the NBA and NFL versions. New rules, like a height clock, are on the way. Old unwritten rules, such as those that discourage exuberance on the pitch, are being phased out of a grumpy collective consciousness.

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Attendance is down. Television ratings for the All-Star Game were historically low, although Sports Media Watch reported that it was the most-watched television event since the NBA Finals ended. The baseball industry remains consumed with comparisons — with the NFL, the NBA, and less favorably with the NHL — though it leads all competitors in frenzied self-mockery. Baseball hasn’t had a LeBron James or Michael Jordan, at least not in this century. There was no Tom Brady. (Well, technically he had briefly this Tom Brady, a Montreal Expos draft pick.) Mike Trout and Aaron Judge are stars of the baseball world, but not necessarily staples of cultural awareness.

Yet as the sport continues its anxious, self-imposed search for a star big enough to bring back into the mainstream cultural zeitgeist, it may miss the fact that it has one. Fame and mainstream relevance are hard things to measure, but Ohtani seems to be navigating both.

His appeal could be measured in cameras – the 28-year-old is surrounded by them at every turn. Viewership for MLB games on Japanese television network NHK BS1 has increased 422% since Ohtani’s arrival in the United States, according to MLB data.

As all the stars met the media on Monday, Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, whose uncertain future was bringing him into the spotlight this week, was surrounded by three or four cameras and a semi-circle of reporters on two or three rows deep. Ohtani was surrounded by a semicircle of cameras two or three rows deep – not to mention the reporters hanging around the periphery.

A snake of humanity and technology followed Ohtani onto the field at Dodger Stadium, forcing some of the game’s other stars to dance away. Many baseball players have graced Sports Illustrated covers over the years. Ohtani graced the cover of GQ, the first baseball player to do so in over a decade. In April, he was on the cover of Time.

“I don’t know if everyone in America likes me, but all I can do is give it my all, play and leave it all on the court, and I hope people watching will be inspired,” Ohtani told reporters this week.

Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, measures his client’s stardom by the number of requests he can’t accept, the number of interviews Ohtani doesn’t do, and the number of publicity opportunities he declines politely.

It is featured in a cryptocurrency advertisement and advertisements for Seiko watches, among other products. According to data accumulated by Forbes, Ohtani’s endorsement haul tripled from 2021 to 2022; he now leads all major leagues by almost 300% at $22 million this year.

“We’ve had some big stars, but Shohei is different,” said Balelo, whose agency has handled baseball phenoms as varied as Yoenis Cespedes and Tim Tebow.

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Ohtani arrived in 2018 as many of Balelo’s most prominent players were winding down their careers. So with clients off the books and time to spare, Balelo went all-in on Ohtani, taking a more hands-on approach than ever with a star whose relative profile demanded it.

Balelo hears that people don’t think they know Ohtani because he doesn’t do enough interviews with English-speaking journalists, that he could be bigger if he did. But that, Balelo said, is “by design.”

“He’s a private and extremely focused person,” he said. “Sometimes he just doesn’t understand why he has to do interview after interview. He thinks, ‘This is who I am.’ And I think that created a little mystery, and five years later, we look up and think, “That’s pretty good.” ”

Wherever they go, Ohtani’s teammates answer questions about him, filling in gaps he doesn’t like to fill himself. Baseball players aren’t always thrilled to be peppered with questions about their teammates’ accomplishments, especially day in and day out. But Angels players and staff say it doesn’t bother anyone.

“I’m not sick of it,” Trout said, “because I love Shohei. He’s a great guy.

But what they do know is that to know Ohtani’s baseball side is to know Ohtani. He is obsessed with the game and its routine. He told Japanese outlet NHK that he thinks he makes more omelettes than anyone in baseball because when he’s not eating on the team’s premises, he goes home and cooks for himself, rests, then starts again – a simple life, consumed by preparing for a workload that no other player handles.

“A normal player has a little more freedom, a little more free time to do different things. People ask to do exclusive interviews or production days on his days off. But days off are sacred” Balelo said, “He’s so committed to his rest and making sure he sticks to his routine. Nothing stands in the way of it for him. That’s his priority.”

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The simplest measure of Ohtani’s relative stardom: the stats the routine has produced. Since the start of the 2021 season, only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Judge have more home runs. Only five starters who have thrown at least 200 innings in that span — Dylan Cease, Corbin Burnes, Carlos Rodón, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer — have retired more batters per nine innings. If he was just a hitter, Ohtani would be one of the best hitters in the game. If he was just a pitcher, Ohtani would be one of the best starters in the game.

He makes his Atlanta Braves debut Friday night having allowed just three runs (two earned) and 20 hits in 39⅔ innings with 58 strikeouts in his last six outings. His ERA for the season is 2.38.

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“We have to make sure his story is as big as he is,” MLB chief marketing officer Karin Timpone said. “We’re catching up to his greatness, I think, by sharing this story.”

Timpone talks about Ohtani’s stardom in terms of clicks, among other things. MLB helped Ohtani start her Instagram account two years ago, and he’s already her fourth most-followed star, according to MLB data. When MLB posts about Ohtani on Twitter, those posts are shared more than posts about any other player.

But social media numbers also challenge the premise that Ohtani has achieved unprecedented stardom. He has 1.4 million followers on Instagram. James has over 128 million. Brady has 12.4 million. These numbers speak to the gap some baseball players want to bridge between football and basketball, a gap they say has grown in recent years.

Timpone also worked for the NFL, and she said she views sports less as direct competitors and more as different genres of music.

“They’re all great in their fields, but it’s a different vibe in each one,” she said. “And as we know, people can enjoy different genres and different shapes.”

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Among the elite of the baseball genre, Ohtani is more fascinating than ever.

“I think the casual fans might not get it, but the deep fans get it,” Boston Red Sox slugger JD Martinez said. “He impresses all the players. We talk about him all the time in the clubhouse – we don’t know how he does it.

On All-Star Media Day, nearly every player surveyed said they were more excited to see Ohtani play in person than anyone else. The players’ children are asking for photos with him. Opposing managers nod to him before he takes his first at bat.

And after this year’s pre-game All-Star festivities, it was Ohtani everyone wanted to see. It was Ohtani that Kershaw wanted to challenge with a fastball. It was Ohtani who stopped everyone in his tracks like so few players have done or ever will again – a star like no other, still on the rise.

James C. Tibbs