They came to see a phenom and they saw a spring-training start instead.
As a reminder, Shohei Ohtani’s historic attempt to become a two-way, big league star won’t, at least for a while, look like anything particularly historic.
Unless he figures out a way to pitch to himself.
On Saturday, making his Cactus League debut, Ohtani showed glimpses of brilliance and lapses of command, and generally resembled the player everyone anticipated:
A gifted 23-year-old prospect taking the earliest steps of developing his trumpeted game in the United States.
“It’s still too early to tell, but I think I’m going in the right direction,” he said through an interpreter. “It’s just the first start.”
Ohtani struck out two Milwaukee Brewers and had one strike back, Keon Broxton homering to lead off the second inning. His fastball regularly reached the mid-90s, with a top-end speed of 97 mph.
He also gave up an unearned run, a ground-rule double, walked one batter and mostly fell behind hitters, fighting his control. One of his pitches was officially scored as wild.
“It’s just going to be a matter of Shohei getting out there and he’ll find it,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “But the stuff is there.”
On a day when newly elected Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero threw out the ceremonial first pitch, the 31 pitches that followed by Ohtani were dissected down to the stitch, even though none ultimately counted.
That’s why it can be noted that only 17 of his offerings were strikes and only twice did a Brewer swing a miss.
This was, to be sure, one of the most significant 1 1/3-inning stretches of practice baseball ever played.
Ohtani acknowledged his location and slider were not great. He liked how he threw his split-finger pitch. He dismissed the notion of feeling any excessive nerves, but said he struggled to stay warm between innings on a 57-degree afternoon.
When Ohtani was pulled with the score tied 2-2, he left to a warm ovation from the Tempe Diablo Stadium crowd and a cozy reception from his teammates on the bench.
In his next appearance, he’ll start as the Angels’ designated hitter. Scioscia so far has refused to say when that will happen, with Monday being the earliest possibility.
The crowd was announced at 6,019, while the gathering in the home dugout was standing-room-only, many of the Angels regulars who weren’t playing sticking around for the premiere of ShoTime.
“The crazy part about him being so young,” third baseman Zack Cozart said, “is how well he seems to handle everything.”
Though there were empty seats in the stands, there was an overflow section for media, estimates putting their number at near 100.
The clamor, of course, has become the accepted soundtrack around here this spring.
On the Angels photo day, Albert Pujols, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer and a man in any discussion of baseball’s greatest hitters, emerged from the clubhouse drawing no more attention than some anonymous bullpen left-hander.
Moments later, Ohtani appeared and the buzz was audible, dozens of feet suddenly scrambling and crushing the brown warning-track pebbles that encircle the main field.
Ohtani’s presence alone can move people — quite literally, in this case — photographers and reporters scurrying for the best angle on a player already examined from presumably every perspective and in two languages.
When he received the call in December telling him Ohtani would be signing with the Angels, general manager Billy Eppler was moved, too, but in a different direction.
He was standing at the time and, when he went to sit back down, missed his chair, sending the thing rolling backward into the wall while he went splat on the floor.
Eppler called Ohtani’s decision “a pretty remarkable moment” and said he had so much adrenaline flowing that he felt no pain despite landing fanny first.
It was during that photo day last week that another scene captured the delightful absurdity of this endeavor.
As he prepared for the assembled photographers, just like each of his teammates, Ohtani was handed a paper sign with his name printed on it, comically suggesting that someone about to take his picture could do so without knowing the identity of the sensation standing before them.
“The thing about him is how smooth everything is,” Cozart said. “It’s almost like he’s the perfect athlete. He’s built just like a perfect-specimen athlete.”
And that’s how Ohtani will be taken apart by those observing him this spring, pitch by pitch, swing by swing.