Love Thy Enemy: Angels’ Shohei Ohtani Transcends Allegiances

Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ prized two-way superstar, bats in a game in his home country of Japan March 6, 2013. Ohtani is off to a torrid start, with two victories on the mound to go along with three home runs at the dish. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Seventeen years ago this Wednesday, Ichiro Suzuki made a name for himself in the Major Leagues.

Despite being a highly anticipated international signee — and the first Japanese position player to be one — Ichiro’s performance had been underwhelming in his first Spring Training, and it was unclear if he would find success in the Majors.

On that April 11, 2001, Ichiro stood in right field in Oakland as the Mariners played the AL West rival Athletics, and the notorious “Bleacher Creatures” heckled him, throwing everything from coins to racial slurs. They would continue to do so until the bottom of the eighth, when he unleashed an absolute laser to third base, throwing out runner Terrence Long.

As an Oakland native and lifelong A’s fan, I see this as shameful scar on the fan base’s historically unprejudiced reputation. Regardless, with that throw, Ichiro silenced critics for the duration of what is a surely Hall of Fame-worthy career.

If you follow baseball even remotely, Ichiro’s breakout should sound eerily familiar: two-way player Shohei Ohtani’s story is unfolding the same way.

Despite posting a 27.00 ERA and looking like a high school-caliber hitter at the plate during Spring Training, Ohtani’s Big League debuts both at the plate and on the mound have ranged from good to literally perfect thus far.

In his first start, he consistently fooled A’s batters, going six strong innings and getting a win. He then singled in his first at-bat and homered in his first three home games. Last Sunday, in his first home start, he took a perfect game into the seventh inning against the A’s, striking out 12.

As I watched Ohtani put down A’s batter after A’s batter, I guiltily found myself rooting for him. The thought dawned on me: Is this cursed situation divine retribution for Oakland’s treatment of his fellow countryman all those years ago?

Indeed, Ohtani plays for the division rival Los Angeles Angels, which in Mike Trout already have the best player of a generation, and in Albert Pujols have an impending Hall-of-Famer. And yes, Ohtani’s success directly opposes the A’s.

But with the Astros heavily favored to win the division, and the A’s simply not looking like a Wild Card-caliber team, the timing might just be perfect for me to put aside allegiances and appreciate what Ohtani is doing for the game of baseball.

At the most basic level, regardless of how well he does, baseball fans should appreciate the gravity of what Ohtani is trying to do: become the first legitimate two-way player since Babe Ruth a century ago. On top of this, we get to watch the less-than-innovative Mike Scioscia figure out the nearly unprecedented logistics. What a time to be alive.

On a more complex level, Ohtani already challenged the norms of free agency in the Major Leagues, taking far less money than he could have made a couple years from now in order to pursue the game he loves while still in his prime.

So far, Ohtani’s success cannot be overstated. He has hit for more power than Aaron Judge, struck out more batters than Max Scherzer, and brought crowds to Angel Stadium like it has not seen in years.

I experienced Ohtani Fever in person last Friday; his second inning home run infused energy back into the stadium and jump-started an Angels comeback (over the A’s, of course) from six runs down. Every time he stepped up to the plate, men, women, and children alike locked in on the game, eager to watch him make history.

The A’s and Angels will play each other a whopping 19 times this season, and if Ohtani stings us every time, that would be just fine: he is forcing atonement for Oakland fans’ sins of 2001.

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