Column: Angels’ Shohei Ohtani is a Japanese comic book fantasy come to life
The protagonists of Japanese comic books come in various forms. There are warriors and ghost hunters, surgeons and teachers, detectives and chefs. And, of course, athletes.
The authors of sports-themed stories have taken the liberties of bestowing their characters with supernatural abilities, creating soccer players with shots that burn nets and baseball players who throw pitches that disappear.
The concept of a baseball player who can pitch and hit has existed in this realm of fantasy for some time. Now, it’s taking a real-life form in a 23-year-old from the same country that dreamed up the possibility.
Three days after he was the designated hitter in the Angels lineup, Shohei Ohtani will start as a pitcher at the Oakland Coliseum.
If Ohtani succeeds in becoming modern baseball’s first two-way player, he will be doing something incredible even by comic book standards.
Ohtani is known to have read “Major,” in which fictional character Goro Shigeno pitched and hit professionally, but not at the same time. Shigeno, who like Ohtani played for a team based in Anaheim and threw over 100 mph, became a hitter after an injury to his left shoulder forced him to abandon pitching. (Shigeno was on his second arm; he learned to pitch left-handed after hurting his right shoulder as a child.)
Ohtani shares more than cartoonish talent with these imaginary pitchers. Like them, he doesn’t have any known interests outside of baseball. And like them, he has maintained a boyish enthusiasm for the game.
Tomohiro Kuroki was relieved to see that hadn’t changed when he visited with Ohtani this week.
“He looks like he’s having fun,” Kuroki said in Japanese.
A former pitcher in the Japanese league, Kuroki was a pitching coach for the Nippon-Ham Fighters in the five years Ohtani played for the team. Kuroki is in Oakland this week as an analyst with satellite television channel J Sports.
Ohtani was only 18 when Kuroki started working with him.
“He was very mature, very smart,” Kuroki said. “He was extremely coachable.”
Ohtani always seemed to know where he was headed and Kuroki imagined that remains the case today.
“I’m guessing that inside, he already has a plan for the next year, for the year after that, for five years down the road, for 10 years down the road,” Kuroki said. “I’m sure he’s thinking of that. He’s the type of player who feels that if he follows his plan, there won’t be any problems. He’s not the kind of player who is affected by the statistics or the expectations of others.”
Kuroki marveled not only at how Ohani studied opposing hitters, but also how he could make in-game adjustments if he had trouble throwing certain pitches.
There were times Kuroki or some of the other coaches had advice for Ohtani. Oftentimes, Ohtani would make the adjustment they had in mind before they could deliver the message.
“We created an environment in which we let him work how he wanted to work,” Kuroki said.
The entire Fighters organization was invested in Ohtani’s success. By offering him the opportunity to be a two-way player, the Fighters convinced Ohtani to remain in Japan rather sign with a major league franchise out of high school.
“A player like that is a treasure,” Kuroki said. “He has a chance to make history and the entire Fighters organization worked to help him get there. But the person who worked the hardest was him.”
Kuroki added, “He has a strong heart.”
Which made him dependable in important games. Ohtani was a two-way workhorse for the Fighters when they won the Japan Series in 2016.
“When you start him in a game you can’t afford to lose, he changes,” Kuroki said.
Ohtani was underwhelming in spring training and Kuroki said it was reasonable to expect him to require time to adjust to the major leagues. At the same time, Kuroki wouldn’t discount the possibility of Ohtani succeeding immediately.
“If you watch his exhibition games, it’s indisputable that he struggled,” Kuroki said. “But he’s a player who has the ability to do something entirely different when he climbs on that mound for a real game. When he makes his major league start or if he pitches in a game that could result in a postseason berth, I think he will unleash something incredible.”
Perhaps like something out of a comic book.
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