SEATTLE — As I type this from the lonely cheap seats in the lofty upper deck of T-Mobile Park, I’m still trying to digest what I just saw.
Shohei Ohtani, the broad-shouldered pitcher and power hitter for the Los Angeles Angels — as unique a player as Major League Baseball has had in generations — just unleashed a home run with such force that it left the entire stadium in a state of stunned reverence.
The ball soared skyward, and oh do I mean skyward. Several members of the Seattle Mariners, Ohtani’s opponents on this warm night, craned their necks to track it and then stared dolefully at the ground. The crowd let out a collective gasp — a sound similar to that of air being released from a balloon.
“Oh my God, did that just happen?” a fan muttered to his friends.
The ball landed near enough that I could hear it smack against a concrete step. An usher leaned over and told me he’d been working Mariners games for more than a decade and had never seen a ball hit that high and that hard.
From where I sat, above the field, home plate looked as if it were a mile away. It seemed impossible that a human being could hit a ball that far.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Shohei Ohtani has spent all season bending the arc of what is possible. He seems capable of doing just about anything at the plate and from the pitching mound. This much is not debatable: Right now, Shohei Ohtani, 27, is one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports.
On Monday, Ohtani will headline the Home Run Derby at Coors Field in Denver. On Tuesday, he will hit and pitch in the All-Star Game.
An argument can be made that if he keeps this up, he will complete the greatest single season baseball has ever had.
The Cliffs Notes, for those who are not keeping up: That upper-deck home run was Ohtani’s 33rd of the season. He leads the league in home runs, and if he keeps this up, he could threaten the season record of 73 set by Barry Bonds. He is rewriting the record books and humbling a game known to deflate even its most masterful practitioners.
Ohtani has done all of this while proving himself as the first bona fide two-way player in generations. He is now considered one of the finest pitchers in baseball. Last week, when he dominated the Boston Red Sox from the mound to push his record to 4-1, nearly 75 percent of his pitches were strikes. He blazed fastballs and mixed in slow orbital curves. This wasn’t just pitching. It was art.
After the game, his manager, Joe Maddon, compared Ohtani to baseball’s icon of icons, the last dominant player in the major leagues to star on the mound and as an everyday player at the plate. “We all romanticize what it would have been like to watch Babe Ruth play,” Maddon said. “You hear this stuff, and it’s a larger-than-life, broader concept. Now we’re living it. So don’t underestimate what we are seeing.”
Baseball needs Ohtani right now. The game is listing. As it has for years, baseball is struggling for the kind of broad popularity it enjoyed in years gone by, only now it does so while facing the undertow of a pandemic.
America needs Ohtani right now, too.
Ohtani, who stands 6-foot-4 and is remarkably fast, starred in Japan and in 2018 was named American League Rookie of the Year with the Angels. But injuries and the coronavirus pandemic kept him from fully flourishing. He could not have timed this, the mother of all breakout seasons, any better.
The pandemic’s origins in China have brought the crazies out. As a result, Asian Americans — recent immigrants and families that have been in the United States for generations, people whose roots spring from every nation on the Asian continent — live in a constant state of siege. They are dealing with a spike in sometimes deadly hate crimes and ugly discrimination.
In this awful environment, what do we find? An Asian athlete utterly dominating a sport that still markets itself as the American pastime.
“He’s taking on and being compared to Babe Ruth of all people,” said Ron Wakabayashi, an avid baseball fan, retired now at age 76 after spending years leading the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations and before that, the Japanese American Citizens League. “Babe Ruth! A guy who is deeply embedded in the American psyche, I mean, wow. Ohtani, doing what he’s doing, he means a ton to this community. Especially now.”
I spoke last week with a slew of Asian American baseball fans and community leaders. A Buddhist priest whose temple was one of several in Los Angeles hatefully vandalized this year. Ohtani-loving college professors who study the Asian struggle for representation and belonging in the United States. Mothers and fathers and families inside the Mariners’ stadium.
Again and again, I heard stories of fear and pain tied to the rise in prejudice.
But I also heard something hopeful: how Ohtani’s magisterial season has created a soothing, bolstering effect.
Wakabayashi told a story that explained it perfectly. He said he carefully watches his back these days during frequent three-mile walks in a Los Angeles-area community where several anti-Asian attacks have occurred.
But on those walks, he thinks of Ohtani. And when he does, he thinks of power and guts: the great Japanese player never flinching, “never backing down,” and doing it all.
In a time of great turbulence, Ohtani’s strength and moxie, and the way he moves within a baseball world with few Asian faces, “is making life a little better.”
Can sports do any more than that? I don’t think so.
Ohtani, who uses an interpreter to communicate with the sports media in English, is quiet on the growing discrimination and rage in the United States. In the tradition of the many notable Japanese-born players before him, he is circumspect about pretty much everything other than baseballs, strikes and home runs.
But that’s fine. He doesn’t need to speak up or speak out in order to make a difference. His pitching and his hitting, and the graceful, two-way fluidity he’s using to dominate in the major leagues say plenty.