ANAHEIM, Calif. – If this indeed is the one, the perfect ballplayer, he comes with delicate features and a once-a-week shave and a charming habit of laughing at his own jokes.
He comes not weary, and not suspicious, and not showy, yet sure enough of himself to know there is no sure thing. There are no sure paths. There is, perhaps, only honest effort.
And so he comes a couple decades after being nudged onto a ball field for the first time, told to go here and here and here, and never knew enough to stop going here or here or here, except maybe to shortstop. He doesn’t go there anymore.
And he comes on a 90-degree day in Southern California while wearing a deep blue sport coat of what looked to be velvet, or velvety, and he admitted that when that day arrived he could not know if the weather would demand attire for a snowy Chicago day or a cool Seattle day or a foggy San Francisco day or this, the sun a bit too close for December, the dais filled with beaming men, the plaza and parking lot of Angel Stadium stuffed with people chanting his name.
“Hi,” he said into a microphone, “my name is Shohei Ohtani.”
By then he’d happily replaced the jacket with a red Los Angeles Angels jersey, the No. 17, and later revealed, “I actually wanted No. 27, but somebody else was wearing that number.”
He laughed when he said it. He laughed along with the rest when it was translated. The somebody else, of course, is Mike Trout, the perfect-enough ballplayer whose Angels for most of seven years have matched neither his talent nor his promise. Not that they haven’t at times tried. Albert Pujols came. So too did Josh Hamilton. Others. And then every season ended as did the last, or about so, and the ballclub wandered a course of mediocrity, perking up for four or five at-bats a night from Trout.
So it was with more than a little enthusiasm the Angels on Saturday introduced Ohtani, the 23-year-old right-handed pitcher, left-handed batter, uber-player from Japan. He waved, offered a short bow and looked out from behind dark eyes, neither soft nor challenging. More, perhaps, curious at the to-do of it all.
A thousand fans set aside a couple hours on their Saturday afternoon. A short line formed at a temporary kiosk that sold season tickets. The doors to the team store were wedged open. More than 200 media members attended, perhaps 150 from Japanese news agencies. When he cracked about his nervousness in speaking before so many, or the chance this would all come on Trout’s wedding day, or his hope to win his first decision as a pitcher and hit his first home run in the same game, dozens in the crowd laughed before his words were translated.
The Angels tend to do these things as pep rallies dressed up as press conferences, and so when a question was posed as to whether Ohtani really could be front-end starting pitcher and a middle-of-the-lineup bat, a gruff voice from the crowd spat, “Hell yeah he can do it!” And that was that.
Asked again and again about what he would be and how often and whether he really believes this could be, Ohtani deferred to what he’s always been, a ballplayer, from the time he could remember. If there is a plan, it’s a fluid plan, as to the particulars. Still, there would be no confusion over the Angels’ belief that Ohtani could lead their rotation and also serve as a semi-regular designated hitter.
“The guy,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, “is legitimately a two-way player.”
Beyond that, he said, “It doesn’t make any sense to put numbers on it. If you research what he did in Japan, he wasn’t banking 600 plate appearances. As a pitcher he’s got No. 1 starter stuff on many staffs in the game. His stuff is off the charts. So it’ll be a balance. I don’t think anybody expects 33 starts and 650 plate appearances.
“With Shohei, obviously there’s a lot on his plate. We will work through it one step at a time and make sure he’s as good a hitter as he can be, along with as good a pitcher as he can be.”
General manager Billy Eppler, who estimated he’d seen about 10 of Ohtani’s games in Japan, half as a pitcher and half as a hitter, spoke of the same balance, and the same process of plan-adjustment-new plan-adjustment, of learning the major-league game at the major-league level, with a crowd full of jerseys with OHTANI written across the shoulders. There’s a lot still out there, a lot to come, and Ohtani seemed to say the task, at its most fundamental, has not changed.
It’s still baseball. He comes, it would seem, promising to play that, promising to honor the chance and the difficulty of it, as if to confirm at the same time how simple it all could be if you let it be. If he is the one, the perfect ballplayer, he comes with the same curiosity as everyone. Could he be?
“I guess I’ll let my play speak for itself,” he said.