SEATTLE — If you were dropped at T-Mobile Park this week and didn’t know it was hosting the MLB All-Star Game, you could be forgiven for guessing that Shohei Ohtani had convened a meeting of baseball’s brightest to determine who was worthy of becoming his teammate. However, that impression had little to do with Ohtani, who seemed less interested in the topic of himself than his competitors (suitors?) did.
See, Ohtani is playing baseball in a way that might be better described as “creating living history” than “hitting homers” or “pitching well” or even “tallying beaucoups of Wins Above Replacement.” He is doing all of those things, of course, which is the unbelievable part. He leads baseball with 32 homers and a 1.050 OPS at the All-Star break while also having racked up 100 1/3 innings of 3.32 ERA ball as a starting pitcher.
This is a player whose feats have made Babe Ruth comparisons passé — not for being excessive but for failing to capture the scope of his two-way greatness. He is also doing these things for the permanently mediocre Los Angeles Angels at the moment, as the magnitude of his career becomes clear and a momentous decision on his future looms ever larger on the horizon.
He is half a season away from a blank uniform and a blank check.
Ohtani is all but guaranteed to hit the open market of free agency at season’s end. There’s some chance (albeit a small and publicly downplayed one) that he’s less than a month away from switching teams in a blockbuster trade should the Angels — currently 45-46 and five games back of the last AL wild-card spot — falter further amid a wave of injuries, including a recent big one to Mike Trout.
As it stands, there is nothing except speculation to fuel dreams of Ohtani in colors other than red and white, but that’s plenty when Ohtani’s play is providing the heat. This week, storefronts in Seattle posted signs and sidewalk boards to “Free Shohei” and Ohtani’s every movement, every interaction in a sea of stellar players, every utterance became a tea leaf.
Despite nominally being a division rival, he got the loudest ovation for any non-Mariners player in pregame introductions before the All-Star Game, a 3-2 win for the National League. Prior to his at-bats, the Seattle crowd burst into a crystal-clear chant that eschewed any shyness or subtlety.
“Come to Seattle!” [clap, clap, clap clap clap]
“Come to Seattle!” [clap, clap, clap clap clap]
When Ohtani spoke to reporters after exiting the game, he sent hearts across Seattle soaring by mentioning that he has spent time here in the offseason.
Other players wearing All-Star uniforms this week couldn’t go quite that heavy-handed with their stump speeches. Fans, after all, can’t be dinged for tampering. Freddie Freeman — first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are widely rumored to be gearing up for an Ohtani pursuit — was mic’d up for the Fox broadcast during the chant, but even so, he smoothly fell back on what seems to be the party line.
“I'm gonna go with all 30 teams would want Shohei on their team,” he said.
Joe Davis: "They're chanting 'Come to Seattle," do you guys want to start your own chant to Shohei? "
Freddie Freeman: "That would be tampering. I'm not doing any of that...I'm gonna go with all 30 teams would want Shohei on their team." pic.twitter.com/agaFnNBdC7
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) July 12, 2023
Without any direct appeals, other All-Stars professed a level of respect for Ohtani’s abilities that is tipping toward awe as he bounds 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 any player in baseball for himself, he’d scoop up Ohtani’s power. Shane McClanahan, the Tampa Bay Rays’ ace who might have to fend off Ohtani for a Cy Young Award, listed Ohtani’s sweeper as one of his most coveted pitches.
Alex Cobb, the veteran San Francisco Giants starter who earned his first All-Star berth with a 2.91 ERA through 16 starts this season, gushed about his former teammate, offering an unconventional reason as to why Ohtani is the All-Star he most wants to face in an exhibition setting.
“There's not too many situations where if you are the pitcher on the mound and you fail, you're expected to fail,” Cobb said. “But I feel like he just owns everybody so much that if he does whatever he does, it's expected, but if you get him out, then you're the hero there.”
Zac Gallen, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ ace who started Tuesday for the NL, did exactly that, recording a strikeout against Ohtani. To hear him tell it, it was more about self-preservation in the moment.
“I mean, you had this crowd, standing ovation, the place was going nuts,” Gallen said afterward. “So I’m thinking, ‘Man, if I serve up a homer to this guy, the place is going to erupt.’”
That did not, however, stop Gallen from immediately recognizing his accomplishment.
"I tossed it out,” he said of the ball, which is bound for his mantle. “They probably looked at me like, 'What's this guy doing?'”
Cobb did get to face Ohtani in the fourth inning, by the way. He issued him a walk.
Fellow players’ admiration for Ohtani’s brain-bending excellence isn’t going anywhere. By this time next season, however, when the All-Star Game arrives in Dallas, we will have a better stress test of Ohtani’s transcendence among fans. He will necessarily have spurned 29 teams, some more directly than others.
Will he somehow rise above the sport’s typical tribal dividing lines, in addition to annihilating the seemingly unbreakable barrier between pitching and hitting?
It’s tempting to see this as a reflection on the Angels, a team that has found a way to host unparalleled individual performers without posing a real threat to its rivals. Maybe it's that, or maybe it was that to start. But now, with towering homers, dominant splitters and trademark expressive body language, Ohtani seems to hold the entirety of the baseball world in the palm of his hand.
Or, perhaps more accurately, the baseball world holds him, recognizing and struggling to comprehend the glory of a never-before-seen gem.