When Shohei Ohtani slipped on the Los Angeles Angels’ cap and jersey in his first game in 2018, something significant went along with the new franchise’s first Japanese player.
A little more than a year ago, many Americans found out for the first time that Ohtani was not just one of the best pitchers in baseball, but an MVP-caliber hitter as well. The moment of being greeted by a throng of 30,000 screaming New York Yankees fans on April 24, when Ohtani made his debut for the Angels in New York, was arguably his defining moment of his career.
Of course, to more than a few Americans, Ohtani is an even bigger hero as an individual than a member of the Angels. His cell phone will be in the shop during the game or in New York next time he’s in town with the Yankees. His schedule is never available on draft day because Ohtani has too many potential draft-day requests to sort through. Fans will probably have news alerts on their phones if he’s traveling with his girlfriend and family or playing with his national team at the World Baseball Classic. Ohtani has used his satellite radio app a couple of times to connect with the rest of the world during the offseason.
To his legion of fans, Ohtani is always the MVP.
“We’re just blessed that he’s one of us,” said Hiroyuki Yabugo, a Japanese translator in Japan who travels around the country to do advance scouting for Ohtani’s Pacific League team, the Kintetsu Rakuten Golden Eagles. “To live the fan attention like that is a blessing.”
Actually, Ohtani doesn’t really have a rooting interest in Japanese professional baseball. He once said he prefers to play for the Angels, one of the best teams in MLB, simply because it made the most sense economically. He has said his wish to play with the Angels does not make him better or worse than the other players in Japan’s Pacific League, but he did say he would continue playing with the Eagles “as long as they’re good.”
Both the Eagles and the Angels compete for the Pacific League title, and the Eagles are in good shape for the playoffs with Ohtani and fellow Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda behind the plate. Maeda, the former major league star who is primarily a reliever, is an especially nice bonus for the Eagles as they try to compete against the nationally well-regarded Hanshin Tigers.
This season, Ohtani said he will decide whether he wants to keep playing with the Eagles in 2019.
“I can’t say at this moment what I’m going to do,” Ohtani said. “All I can say is, I’m open for whatever decision.”
A potential outcome is that Ohtani remains with the Eagles, which already has a feeling-good story of Japanese players being proud of being Americanized in the States.
But other than Ohtani, it’s highly unlikely that the Eagles will be around after 2019. The Angels will acquire left-hander Julio Urias, a 20-year-old prospect who has a fastball reaching 94 mph, and sign a free agent shortstop and outfielder who both are Japanese.
The Eagles are the Yankees’ old Class A rival for a reason. Their roster features a handful of Japanese players and each spring, the two clubs play an exhibition series against each other.
“They’re good,” Ohtani said of the Eagles when he first arrived in Los Angeles after the season. “We’re just trying to compete against them. The guys know me, and I like them to like me.”
The Angels have had Ohtani for a full season, and he has shown he has the ability to dominate.
Ohtani is hitting .293 with 27 home runs and a .952 OPS. He’s been relatively streaky, hitting 15 home runs after July 28 and going without a home run in six of the Angels’ last seven games.
He is leading the majors in home runs, walks and on-base percentage and leading the American League in wins above replacement. After a flurry of criticism from fans, The Los Angeles Times picked Ohtani to lead AL MVP voting. Ohtani has a sizable lead over the other finalists for the MVP award — Miguel Andujar of the Yankees, Aaron Judge of the Yankees and Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers.
With the season ending Tuesday, Ohtani’s decision has to be imminent, and the right moment to make it. It’s almost a done deal that Ohtani is off the Eagles in 2019.
But for his fans, it’s not yet time to make their own decision. For now, they’re hanging onto Ohtani with all their might.
“To be a true superfan, you have to be around him