Travel by railroad from mainland Japan to the northern-most island of Hokkaido and you will see Shohei Ohtani. Of this, I’m certain.
A couple of days ago, I stared for nearly two hours directly into an advertisement bearing his image in the crowded, standing-room only section of a train.
Arrive at Sapporo station and it’s the same deal. Ohtani’s face is on posters near both ends of the terminal. His picture was next to the map of the city in the middle of the station too.
Ohtani, 23, is everywhere these days in Japan, including back on the mound.
He not only is Japan’s best pitcher, but its best hitter as well. But ankle and hamstring injuries have limited him mostly to the batter’s box this season, which is why major league talent evaluators rushed to the other side of the world to watch him pitch for the Nippon-Ham Fighters at the Sapporo Dome on Tuesday night. The start was only his third of the season.
There is an increased sense of urgency for major league teams to watch Ohtani. They are under the impression he will move to the United States in the upcoming offseason, even if doing so could cost him upward of $200 million because of Major League Baseball’s international signing rules.
There were scouts representing 16 major leagues teams, and they weren’t there to evaluate his ability as much they were to search for insights that could give them an edge in landing him.
“What do we really know about him?” asked a National League scout who spoke under the condition of anonymity because his employer forbids him from discussing players on other teams.
About Ohtani the person, not very much. He lives in the team’s dorms and still doesn’t have a driver’s license. If he has any interests outside of baseball, no one seems to know about them.
What is certain is that he is a physical freak of nature, 6 feet 4 with massive shoulders and long limbs. As a right-handed pitcher, he clocked the Japanese league’s fastest-ever pitch at 102.5 mph last year. As a left-handed batter, has smashed 500-foot home runs. And he consistently covers the 90 feet between the batter’s box and first base between 3.8 and 4.0 seconds. (Ichiro Suzuki in his prime was only slightly faster, and he was a slap hitter.)
Ohtani was the Pacific League’s most valuable player last season, with a record of 10-4 and a 1.86 earned-run average as a pitcher and a batting average of .322 with 22 home runs in 104 games as a designated hitter. The Fighters won the Japan Series.
The locals have mixed feelings about his potential departure. They want to see him compete against the best players in the world, but also don’t want to lose him.
“Honestly, I’d like him to stay for a couple of more years,” said the taxi driver who took me to the Sapporo Dome.
The Fighters are a source of intense pride on the island of Hokkaido, which is rural and geographically isolated. Bears are said to occasionally descend from nearby mountains into the outer parts of the city, requiring children to walk to school in large packs as a safety measure.
The decision is Ohtani’s to make; the Fighters have said they will not stand in the way of their former No. 1 draft choice if he wants to move to the major leagues. The Fighters figure to collect a $20-million posting fee — what an MLB team would pay for his contract rights — if Ohtani departs before he becomes a free agent.
Ohtani could sign a contract of any length or value if he waits another two years, because he would be 25 and not subject to the restrictions imposed on international players by MLB.
Choosing to move before then would limit his bonus to between $300,000 and $10 million, depending on the team.
Asked whether he was starting to form an idea of what he wanted to do, Ohtani replied in Japanese, “Not at all.”
But that’s not what major league teams are hearing. Which is why Tuesday’s game between the Fighters and the Rakuten Golden Eagles was watched by 32 scouts and executives from 16 teams, including two representatives from the Dodgers, who nearly signed him out of high school.
Many of the scouts gathered around the home team’s bench as the Fighters took batting practice, trading stories about how they navigated Tokyo’s complicated rail system earlier in the week to get around the main island. When the game started, the scouts moved to the seats directly behind home plate and raised their radar guns.
In the days leading up the game, Ohtani said their presence wouldn’t affect him.
“I don’t even know if they’re coming to watch me,” he said.
He was assured they were.
“I think everything will be fine if I take care of what I’m supposed to take care of,” he replied.
Ohtani’s previous start was on Aug. 31. He didn’t pitch well that day, touching 99 mph but giving up four runs in 3 1/3 innings.
His first pitch Tuesday was clocked at 96 mph. In the second inning, he touched 101 mph, eliciting an excited gasp from the crowd.
The people of Hokkaido are known to be particularly kind, and the fans reflected that. When Fighters first baseman Brandon Laird stepped into the batter’s box in the second inning, pretty much the entire stadium sang “Happy Birthday.” A three-time 30-homer hitter in Japan, Laird turned 30 the day before.
Ohtani walked a batter with one out in the third inning, setting up a questionably timed sacrifice bunt by Kazuya Fujita. The game was stopped and the stadium’s public address announcer informed the crowd that Fujita was the 40th player in Japanese league history to record 200 sacrifice bunts.
The American in me chuckled at the thought of the number at-bats wasted by Fujita, but the fans applauded the visiting player as he received a bouquet of flowers.
Predictably, the bunt didn’t lead to a run. Ohtani forced the next batter to ground out.
The Fighters weren’t doing much on offense, either, through the first three innings. But right as I started thinking about how the Dodgers’ sputtering offense could make Ohtani feel at home, Fighters first baseman Toshitake Yokoo blasted a cutter into a giant inflatable baseball on the other side of the left-field wall. The Fighters were up, 3-0.
That was more than enough for Ohtani to earn his first victory of the season. With his pitch count set at 80, Ohtani delivered 5 2/3 scoreless innings. He gave up only one hit. He struck out four, but walked three. The Fighters won, 7-0.
“I’m sorry it took this long,” he told the fans in an on-field postgame interview.
Multiple scouts offered positive reviews of the performance that ranged from “good” to “great.” But two National League scouts thought they noticed something.
“He was going through the motions,” one of them said as the other nodded. “He’s physically so much superior to everyone else. He just overpowered everyone. He looks like he’s ready for a new challenge.”
Perhaps next year.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez