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'We're in uncharted waters': After historic first half, Shohei Ohtani has MLB legends wondering what's next

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DENVER — Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Albert Pujols, the future Hall of Famer, stood by the batting cage three years ago in Orange County when Shohei Ohtani started swinging.

Pujols looked. He stared. He gawked.

He took out his cell phone and called Mark McGwire, his former St. Louis Cardinals teammate, who 23 years ago broke Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.

“Mac, you aren’t going to believe this,’’ Pujols told McGwire. “This new guy from Japan that we have, he’s got more power than I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve never seen a guy hit the ball this far.’’

McGwire, recalling the conversation, said he couldn’t help but question Pujols.

Come on, more power than anyone he’s ever seen?

You’re talking about an era with Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Cecil Fielder and of course, McGwire.

“I’m telling you,’’ Pujols said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. Wait until you see this kid.’’

Well, three years later, the entire baseball world is witnessing the absurd, with Ohtani putting on the greatest show since Babe Ruth.

He has a major league-leading 33 home runs. He has a major league-leading 56 extra-base hits. He is tied for the American League with four triples while hitting .279. He has 70 RBI, third-most in the major leagues. He has 12 stolen bases, making him the first player in baseball history to this many homers and stolen bases before the All-Star break. And he is 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA, striking out 87 batters in 61 innings.

And, oh yeah, he’s on pace to eclipse Maris' 61-home run mark, the most in American League history.

“Oh, man, can you imagine?’’ says former Arizona Diamondbacks great Luis Gonzalez, who had 35 homers at the 2001 All-Star break, the fifth-most in MLB history. “You hear all of the comparisons anyway to him and Babe Ruth, and to hit 60, that would be incredible.

“I really hope he does it, and if he does, this guy is going to be a living, breathing legend.

“He won’t be able to go anywhere in Japan. He’ll be like one of the Beatles.’’

Ohtani’s talents will be on gorgeous display for the next 48 hours.

You’ll watch him hit 500-foot homers in the Home Run Derby Monday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Coors Field. You’ll see him bat at the All-Star Game on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET, FOX), where he's batting leadoff after being voted the starting DH.

And oh you’ll see him as the AL's starting pitcher.

He just may be the greatest attraction in All-Star Game history.

“I saw it first-hand myself what he was capable of,’’ Pujols said, “and now that he’s healthy, everyone is seeing what he can do. People are going to remember this All-Star Game for a long, long time, especially the home-run derby.

“He might hit one out of Denver.’’

Ohtani celebrates a home run against the Mariners.
Ohtani celebrates a home run against the Mariners.

Says Mark McGwire: “Damn, is he awesome to see. What an athlete. Even his home-run trots are fantastic. We can’t take what he’s doing for granted. It’s historical. It’s like Babe Ruth came back to life.

“He’s making it look effortless, too. You’re seeing these pitchers make adjustments, going up and down, wasting pitches, and he’s still hitting them all over the ballpark.

“You know that purple row of seats in right field that shows you’re sitting at 5,280 feet? I guarantee that’s in play with Shohei.’’

Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, along with four other members of the pre-All Star 30-homer club, spoke to USA TODAY Sports this week, tried to describe what they’re witnessing with Ohtani and looking ahead to his future.

“None of us have ever seen anything like it,’’ Thome says. “What an unbelievably great story. Can you imagine if he hits 60? It’s something you dream about.

“You’re talking about a pretty magical number.’’

Says Jackson: “If he hits 60 home runs, that would be an incredible stat. Absolutely incredible.’’

Matt Williams, who had 33 homers at the All-Star break and a major league-leading 43 when the strike ended the 1994 season, may be in South Korea as manager of the Kia Tigers, but, oh, how he has caught his attention.

“It’s crazy, just crazy what he’s doing,’’ Williams says. “It’s one thing to just be a DH, and hit 30 homers, but to do it as a pitcher, even if he had a 7.00 ERA, is remarkable. When I was hitting my homers, I had Barry Bonds behind me in the lineup. Mike Trout hasn’t even played in two months and he’s doing this.

“I love it.’’

There are only five players in Major League Baseball history to hit 60 homers in a season:

Barry Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Roger Maris and the Babe.

And Maris and Ruth are the only players in the group who accomplished the feat without being under suspicion or admitting to steroid use.

If Ohtani hits 62 home runs, would he suddenly be declared baseball’s clean single-season home run king?

“I don’t know, Jackson says. “What this guy is doing is incredible, especially being a pitcher, too. But what Bonds did in 2001, steroids or not, might be the greatest season. I mean, he had 177 walks with those 73 homers. Can you imagine if they pitched to him?

“I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like that again.’’

Then again, we may never see anything like Ohtani, who could send this season into another galaxy if he joins the 60-home run club. There have been plenty of players who were on pace to hit 60 homers at the All-Star break, but the last players to achieve the feat were Bonds and Sosa in 2001.

“You see a lot of guys pad their stats by the All-Star break,’’ Thomas says, “but in the second half, those pitchers get serious. They pull the plug on that dream. I think he can still hit 50, but 60, I don’t know. He’s going to be pitched differently.’’

There may be a time in the dog days of the summer where fatigue suddenly overpowers him. No one in the 60-home run club ever threw a single pitch that season, let alone started every sixth day. The pandemic has prevented reporters from entering the clubhouse, but the media scrutiny still could be overwhelming.

“The thing that got to me was that I was 23 years old,’’ says Jackson, who had 37 home runs at the 1969 All-Star break, and wound up hitting 10 homers in the second half. “I couldn’t quite handle the pressure. People were talking about breaking Babe Ruth’s record. I was a little young for it.

“If I was 28 or 29, I could have handled it, I could have hit 60, but I just wasn’t ready.

“He’s going to have to deal with the pressure. ’’

Griffey is the only player in history who has produced three seasons of at least 30 homers before the All-Star break, and led the American League in homers four times, but never finished with more than 56 homers.

He insists it was nothing mentally or physically that curtailed his home run numbers, but pitchers approached him differently in the second half.

“It’s not really fatigue,’’ Griffey says, “it’s that you get fewer and fewer pitches to hit. In April, nobody cares how many homers you’re hitting. But when you start to pass people on the home-run chart for the single-season record, that’s when pitchers start to take notice. Their concentration goes way up.’’

Says Thome, who had 30 homers at the 2006 All-Star break and wound up with 42 for the White Sox: “Teams are going to start locking in on you to a degree. They know he’s red-hot. Will he get pitched to in close situations?’’

Ohtani, of course, also has a burden that no one in the 30-homer pre-All Star Game club ever had to face.

He is a pitcher.

Sure, he may be relegated to DH duties, but he still has to throw bullpen sessions, take batting practice, watch video, study analytical charts on both opposing pitchers and hitters.

“Granted, it’s just DH,’’ Angels All-Star Mike Trout says, “but mentally, it’s a grind. Talking to the pitchers and seeing what they go through after a start, they’re worn out. They’re drained and sore.

“Ohtani goes out there and hits two homers.’’

Who knows, maybe being a two-way player actually helps Ohtani, several sluggers suggest, keeping him from stressing out if he has a bad day at the plate or on the mound.

“I think this way he doesn’t have to think about it,’’ Thome says. “The routine he has conditions himself to be locked in from both sides. So, I’m not sure anything is going to affect him that way.’’

Indeed, remember that Ohtani made only two starts in 2019 and 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and suffering a forearm strain. He was strictly a hitter. In those two years (537 at-bats), he hit .259 with 25 homers and a .793 OPS.

“I still wonder what happens when he gets into the dog days of August,’’ Thome says. “Let’s face it, every guy feels it in his body with all of the aches and pains.

“But I’d sure love to see him do it because he’s very respectful to the game, he loves the game, and he gives young kids a chance to dream that they can do this, too.’’

McGwire and others believe Ohtani’s success may open the door for more two-way players. Why not? He’s proving to every athlete it can be done.

Michael Lorenzen of the Cincinnati Reds is a part-time outfielder and a reliever. Brendan McKay of the Tampa Bay Rays is a two-way player, too.

“You could have had a lot of guys do it back in the day,’’ Griffey says, “but weren’t allowed to do it. Guys like [former Cubs shortstop] Shawon Dunston, [former Dodgers right fielder] Raul Mondesi, those guys had cannons for arms. I think they could have pitched, but you didn’t do it back then. Now, guys are getting that opportunity.’’

Of course, considering the stress of pitching, and the greater possibility of incurring injuries, several of the greats would love to see just what Ohtani could accomplish if he were a full-time hitter.

“I think he’s wasting his time pitching,’’ says Thomas, who hit 32 homers in 1994 before the strike ended the season in August. “Why risk injuries when you can hit 50 homers and drive in 130 a year. I know the Angels need pitching, but ... find another pitcher. Let this guy hit. He’s the ideal right fielder with his arm, his speed, and his instincts.’’

Says Pujols: “I think at some point he’ll have to make a choice. It’s just so much wear and tear. If he sticks to hitting, I think he’ll be hitting 60-some homers a season, I really do. I think the Angels can get more production out of him from the plate, but since he loves to do both, and if he stays healthy, why take that away from him?’’

Pujols and Ohtani with the Angels in April.
Pujols and Ohtani with the Angels in April.

Jackson, who remembers needing shoulder surgery just from throwing batting practice, says it’s hard for him to believe Ohtani can keep doing both.

“I just don’t know how this pitching and hitting is going to work out for him,’’ Jackson said. “It’s truly amazing. I don’t know what’s harder. Just throwing 15 minutes of batting practice, I was sore and tired. And he’s throwing 98-mph. It’s amazing. But how much longer can he do this?’’

Who knows, McGwire says, maybe Ohtani can take a page out of the college baseball playbook. He can be an everyday right fielder for eight innings, hit his 50 or 60 home runs, and then become Mariano Rivera in the ninth and close out games.

“I wouldn’t put that by him,’’ McGwire says. “Why couldn’t he do that? He could have Trout squatting down as a catcher in the outfield warming up Ohtani between innings before he comes in. It would be awesome.’’

There have been four players in history who have hit at least 40 home runs with 40 stolen bases, but the 50-50 club sits empty. Why, with Ohtani’s power and speed, who’s to say he can’t do it?

You put up numbers like that, you get paid.

Can you imagine what Ohtani may make as a free agent after the 2023 season if he keeps this going? How about the record he could shatter in a salary arbitration hearing? He’s earning $3 million this year, $5.5 million in 2022, and is eligible for salary arbitration in 2023 before being eligible for free agency.

Forget about $400 million – we could have our first $500 million player.

“I was looking at his numbers the other day and I started thinking about it,’’ McGwire said. “What could he get in free agency? What he’s doing has never been done before. How do you quantify it? The sky’s the limit.

“I remember when he first came out, he could have waited two years and had a bidding war for him as a free agent. He could have had $200 to $300 million without putting his spikes on. But he wanted to be in the major leagues so badly, and had so much confidence in himself, he came out early from Japan, and now look at him.

“I don’t know how the Angels can sign him. How can they afford that? He’s doing stuff that guys who are making $300 million haven’t ever done.

“We’re in uncharted waters. My goodness is he going to get paid.’’

But for now, why worry about the future, let’s savor the present, because, oh, is it ever splendid.

“We always romanticize the past,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said, “and sometimes you miss what’s going on right in front of your very eyes.”

Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shohei Ohtani has MLB legends in awe ahead of first All-Star Game