If not Shohei Ohtani, then who?

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

OAKLAND, Calif. — If a dusting of conceit is required to view oneself as special enough, then so too is a shovelful of humility, as baseball is a game that sees change with a stiff spine and arched brow. Its narrow lines and minds fan a culture of conformity. Of knowing one’s place. Follow the footprints, the path, lain over a century and so hardened in the plodding hearts and creased scowls of the men who are the game.

It cannot be done. Therefore, he cannot do it. The Tao of Baseball.

Shohei Ohtani, designated hitter for the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday night, will pitch for the Angels on Sunday afternoon, the first time in 20 years a player will start as a non-pitcher and pitcher in the same season, the first time in more than 90 years it will be done with the rest of a season, the rest of a career, in mind.

He will one day soon be forced to choose between the two, unless the results choose for him, unless the light-tower bat and Mach 1 fastball and pronghorn footspeed are quite enough to satisfy all the hearts and scowls. Meantime, Ohtani flits through the early hours of his inaugural big league season, one day taking batting practice, another throwing a bullpen session, the next doing both, his body and mind warming to the life, to the schedule, to the lineup card.

He is followed by dozens of reporters from his native Japan, one of them Tomohiro Kuroki from J Sports TV. Kuroki’s last job was pitching coach for Shohei Ohtani. Both worked five seasons for the Nippon Ham Fighters. On Saturday morning, Kuroki, known in Japan as “Johnny” for reasons that are vague, stood in front of the visitor’s dugout here, and Ohtani passed, and they greeted each other with nods and smiles.

“I would like for him to succeed,” Kuroki said. “Even in Japan, nobody’s done that before. Within the team, there were people who were for it and those who were reluctant. And there may be a time where you’ll have to make a decision.”

Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani throws a bullpen session before a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics. (AP)

Until then, Kuroki said, it seemed only right to honor Ohtani’s “big dreams,” not to mention the Angels’. And while some will celebrate the man while denigrating the skills, or celebrate the skills while denigrating the aspiration, or celebrate the aspiration while denigrating the immediate results, the ballplayer will take his hacks and then his innings and see where it all leads. Ohtani has spoken of a greater purpose to this, as though it could not stand alone, and that is, basically, if not Shohei Ohtani, then who? And if not him, then maybe someone else will screw up the courage to try, too. Someone else may challenge the norm in his place.

It’s all a little too big for Sunday. Three days after he had one hit in five at-bats as a left-handed hitter against the Oakland A’s, he will face the A’s lineup as a right-handed pitcher, in the role many believe is most likely to carry his career. (One does not have to venture far to find the alternative opinion, however.)

“Because I was a pitching coach, I want him to be the world’s greatest pitcher,” Kuroki said. “But if you look at his batting practice, there’s something you want to see from there, too. I hope they can play something where they can utilize him both ways.”

As for Ohtani on Sunday, Ohtani the pitcher, Kuroki said, “He is very smart. He analyzes his opponents very well. Even if it changes a little, he’s able to change things around. He’s very observant. In regards to his heart, if it’s an opening game, an important game, a game we need to win, he’s able to unleash his power.”

The Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani went 1-for-5, with a single, in his major league debut. (AP)

Near the end of Saturday afternoon, Ohtani sat at his locker, a plate of food in his lap, pulling hydration from a straw stuck in a juice box. The Angels had won with him on the bench, resting for Sunday. The room was loud. Michigan was beating Loyola Chicago, and the boys were shouting encouragement, many trying to whip the Ramblers to an upset. Ohtani watched the television in silence, occasionally turning his head to acknowledge an outburst.

“I’m happy,” Ohtani said of the approaching start and the ever-present drama. “Of course, it’s better that there’s some expectations than no expectations. But there’s not much of a difference. I want to do what I’ve been doing since I was in Arizona. I want to go in like it was my first time ever being on a field. Just trying to do what I can do.”

Mike Scioscia, the Angels manager, said his only expectation was for Ohtani to “give us a chance to win a game. That’s what we expect from all our starting pitchers.”

The game will be televised in Japan, as most – if not all – will be. What comes of those pitches, as with those at-bats before them, will be inspected, turned over, inspected again. He is 23, testing his footing, breathing in a new world, if not a new life. A young man’s purpose will be shrunk to the size of a box score, inspected again. The organization, too, will answer to whether it is in the business of winning baseball games or selling T-shirts, should it come to that. It’s a heavy lift. It is the one he has chosen.

Perhaps it can be done. Perhaps, therefore, he can do it. The Promise of Baseball.

“My first impression,” Kuroki said, pausing to find the words, “was he looks like he’s having a lot of fun.”

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