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Beyond sobbing girls and screaming homers, Angels see another side of Shohei Ohtani

David Fletcher and Shohei Ohtani, teammates on the field, are fierce competitors in video games.
David Fletcher and Shohei Ohtani, teammates on the field, are fierce competitors in video games.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

This was before the pandemic, when Shohei Ohtani was more of a curiosity than a sensation. He could hit. He could not pitch, because his elbow recently had been rebuilt. He carried the hopes and hearts of his homeland with him, and that embrace had not waned.

With one peek out the window of the team bus, the Angels’ rookie first baseman understood the magnetism of Ohtani.

“There were four girls sitting outside the bus, sobbing,” Jared Walsh said, “because they knew he was on the bus.”

In this magical summer, Ohtani has transcended baseball and blossomed into a global pop culture icon. On the Angels’ last homestand, a Japanese video game company sponsored a giveaway pillow covered with multiple faces of Ohtani and tweeted: “Babe Ruth never had a pillow this nice.”

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Ohtani is the undisputed grand attraction of this All-Star week, the favorite to win the home run derby Monday, selected as a pitcher and a designated hitter for the All-Star game Tuesday. He is must-see and scandal-free, such a singular force that he has eclipsed the teammate widely regarded as baseball’s best player.

Walsh saw it coming two years ago, even if he did not entirely realize it at the time.

The 30-second spot plays on Shohei Ohtani’s two-way role by adding more options: all-star, derby slugger, phenom, global superstar, heartthrob and speedster.

“Mike Trout is a pretty big deal, but I’ve never seen any girl outside the bus sobbing because Mike Trout was on it,” Walsh said. “I think Shohei might have trumped him there.”

On television, Ohtani is the unicorn that can hit a ball 500 feet and throw one 100 mph, a Japanese comic book character come to life. To those around Ohtani every day, the superhero feats are nice, but the man behind them is nicer.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him upset,” Trout said.

“He’s a sweetheart,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said.

“You hear this a lot about Trout: He’s a better person than he is a ballplayer,” Angels pitching coach Matt Wise said. “I would say that about Sho.”

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Billy Eppler, the former general manager and the man most responsible for luring Ohtani to Anaheim, chose the adjective “driven” to characterize Ohtani.

On the eve of Ohtani’s first major league start, in Oakland, Eppler greeted Ohtani’s parents in the hotel lobby. Eppler had gotten to know them in Japan, over the years of scouting Ohtani. He was delighted to see them again. They exchanged pleasantries, and Eppler asked where their son might be taking them to dinner.

Ohtani’s mother did not understand why Eppler would ask. It was the night before game day, so of course her son would spend it watching video of the hitters he was about to face.

“She looked at me like he was getting ready to take his bar or pass his boards,” Eppler said.

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That is not to say Ohtani is no fun. Quite the opposite, the Angels say.

Wise said he enjoyed the memes generated by Ohtani’s facial expressions — some giddy, some bemused, some quizzical.

“He’s always pretty loose and friendly in the clubhouse,” pitcher Dylan Bundy said. “He talks to pretty much everybody, or tries to.”

Said pitcher Andrew Heaney: “It’s not like there is some weird, awkward language barrier. He is very much integrated into the clubhouse and the fabric of the team.”

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His English is pretty good, or getting there, even if not to the point of conducting an interview in a second language.

“I can definitely say that his English is a lot further along than my Japanese would be if I were over there,” Walsh said. “He’s picked up on some of the American slang too.”

Care to share an example? Nope, Walsh said, laughing.

“He’s giving me a hard time about my golf game,” Maddon said.

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Ohtani jumps into clubhouse activities, including pool and Nerf hoops. He watched the poker games but was hesitant about joining.

Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani throws against the Boston Red Sox.
Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani throws during the sixth inning against the Boston Red Sox on July 6 at Angel Stadium.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“We were finally telling him to come play,” Trout said.

“The first time he played, he won a little bit of cash,” Heaney said.

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To hear the Angels tell it, Ohtani’s primary passion off the field is video games.

“Clash of something,” Bundy said. “He does that with David Fletcher all the time. They’re always playing each other and yelling at each other in the clubhouse.”

“Clash Royale,” Fletcher said. “He’s definitely the best at that game.”

He’s the best at baseball this year. He amazes fans daily, but he amazes teammates too.

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In his first at-bat in a game against Baltimore this month, Ohtani was jammed. He popped up. Trout offered some light coaching and a pep talk, wrapped into one.

“I basically told him, ‘Look, this is a great approach for you: If they throw you a fastball inside, you hit a homer to right field. If they throw you offspeed middle, you hit a homer to center,’” Trout said. “‘If they throw anything down and away, you hit it in our bullpen.’”

Just hit a home run, LOL. What happened in Ohtani’s next two at-bats?

“He did it twice, one fastball inside, the next time in the bullpen,” Trout said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

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For the first three years of Ohtani’s major league career, the questions about whether he could prosper as a two-way player obscured his humanity. Nez Balelo, his agent, said he was elated that fans could see Ohtani not only for his bat and arm but also for his fun-loving personality.

“I’ve always known this is who he is and have seen it, but now the world is getting to experience it,” Balelo said, “and it’s fun to watch.”

Mark Gubicza, the Angels’ television analyst and a former pitcher, pulled a baseball card out of his wallet. He is 58, but his hair still flows freely. The card, prepared for a bit on a broadcast, showed pictures of Gubicza and Ippei Mizuhara, the interpreter for Ohtani, with this caption next to Mizuhara’s picture: “Gets his hair cut once a month.”

Shohei Ohtani’s two-way exploits will be among the highlights during the All-Star game and home run derby. Check out The Times’ complete coverage.

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At one presumably slow point in the broadcast, this would be the question: Who has the better hair?

Gubicza ran into Ohtani and solicited his opinion.

“Who’s got better hair,” Gubicza asked, “Ippei or me?”

Ohtani thought about it, but not for long.

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“Me,” he deadpanned.

“I was just laughing my head off,” Gubicza said. “He does. Even when I watch him in a game, he’s not even sweating. His hair is always perfect every time.”

In this year of Shohei Ohtani, of course it is.


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