by Paul West
In 2001, Ichiro Suzuki proved wrong those who believed the countries of the Pacific rim couldn’t provide Major League Baseball with a bona-fide superstar. A slender, ostensibly undersized speedster, Ichiro was a hitting machine who put forth renowned power displays in batting practice and had one of the most ludicrous throwing arms we’ve ever seen on an outfielder. He paved the way for sluggers like Hideki Matsui, aces like Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish, and athletic run producers like Shin-Soo Choo. Despite only beginning his MLB career just shy of 30, the back of his baseball card looks almost made-up; had he come here at the start of his prime, he might own a laundry list of MLB records.
Shohei Ohtani–aged 23, 6’4″ and 205 pounds–is already here.
Ohtani is arguably the fastest player on a team which includes Mike Trout, has enormous power to all fields, and has triple-digit velocity combined with wipeout secondary pitches. He didn’t just astound people because of his background, his novelty, or his narrative; he astounded people by virtue of the feats he accomplished. Get this: the same guy threw six-plus perfect innings in his second career start, striking out twelve in the process, and homered in three consecutive games within a week of joining the big leagues. He’s the first player in a century to be an everyday position player and a top-rotation pitcher at the same time.
Major League Baseball, dubbed “America’s pastime” for generations, has often seemed like a sport desperate to stay on the leaderboard of popular professional sports. As the NBA has truly globalized, and football–despite all its glaring PR problems–continues to dominate the airwaves, baseball has tenuously maintained its popularity while in search of ways to return to its former glory. Some of its initiatives have worked: the World Baseball Classic, the resurgent popularity of the Little League World Series and NCAA Baseball Tournament, and the slow resurgence of urban and African American participation have kept summer’s greatest sport on the map. But it was Japan’s Nippon League which had produced baseball’s next truly global presence: a young man for whom Babe Ruth comparisons, while clearly premature, felt only somewhat hyperbolic. A more fitting comparison might be Bo Jackson, another freakishly versatile athlete who seemed comfortable in the spotlight but whose easy charisma never went over the top or smacked of narcissism. Unfortunately, as with Bo, we’re now contemplating the possibility that injury will prevent us from seeing how great he can truly be.
Yes, many pitchers have come back from Tommy John surgery stronger than ever, and gone on to prosper; but far more often, this same surgery has rendered promising starters never quite the same. For argument’s sake, if his pitching career is derailed and he becomes an everyday right fielder with power and speed, there are worse fates. But the baseball world was poised for so much more than that, and most signs seemed to indicate Ohtani was the real deal.
Now, we’re just hoping we’ll see him again soon.