Shohei Ohtani Reminds Us Why We Challenge Ourselves

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Add me to the growing list of baseball lovers who relish the phenomenon that is Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese ace and slugger who plays for the Los Angeles Angels of Major League Baseball. Yes, you read that right: “ace and slugger.” This year, Ohtani became the first player in history to be selected to the All-Star Game as both a pitcher and a designated hitter. Oh, and he can run the bases like nobody’s business. I wouldn’t want to be the second baseman trying to protect my pad while watching the six-foot-four locomotive nicknamed “Showtime” Ohtani rounding first base and heading in my direction.

I’m a sports geek, so here are a few numbers to provide some context. In his first 24 games pitching, Ohtani has a better ERA and more strikeouts than Roger Clemens did after 24 games; and after 332 games hitting, his hits, home runs, and slugging percentage compare favorably with the “Say hey!” kid himself, Willie Mays. One of the country’s best baseball writers, Tom Verducci, says Ohtani isn’t a modern-day Babe Ruth . . . “he’s better than Ruth!”

I love Ohtani for the way a boyish smile lights up his face when he does something spectacular like turn a 94-mile-an-hour fastball pitched to him into a three-run homer against Cleveland, or throw his own 98-mile-an-hour pitches past the Houston Astros players who stood watching like statues. But I don’t love watching him play just because of how good he is. I also love following what he’s done at the baseball park because I was one of the noisy crowd that thought when he first came into the MLB that he would fail at the plate and quickly realize that nobody cared if a pitcher could hit as long as he held his own on the mound.

And in a roundabout way, we were right—nobody would have cared. He could have collected his pay and done what my pal John Smoltz used to tell me pitchers loved to do when they weren’t pitching: play golf. But Ohtani chose not to settle or be complacent but to spend more time in the batting cage instead of the golf course. And guess what happened? He disrupted a trend that started with Babe Ruth in the 1920s and calcified to this very day into pitchers who pitch and batters who bat.

I’m excited by somebody who breaks the paradigm of what to expect out of him beyond what “the game” suggests. Who knows, maybe Ohtani’s MLB legacy will be to get more pitchers to spend time in the batting cage and boost offensive production in a national pastime that sorely needs it? Today, in the National League where teams cannot rely on designated hitters as they can in the American League, a pitcher is considered to be quite the slugger if he can manage to hit .150. In the month of June, Ohtani batted .309 with 13 home runs and 23 RBIs. He also had five pitching starts and recorded 33 strikeouts and two wins en route to winning Player of the Month.

We live in a society that values specialization in all things because with that specialization we are supposedly reaching our best. In baseball, pitchers have become specialized to the point at which they can resemble throwing machines: tall and large-bodied to deliver maximum speed on the ball, with pitching arms their employers are eager to protect.

Today, there is a school of thought that argues Ohtani should focus on one thing or risk an injury to all of his prodigious and diverse talents. But I don’t think human nature works this way. I think people want to test their capacity to learn new skills. Speaking for myself and my chosen profession of writing, I know most writers don’t try to become speakers and are, in fact, discouraged from doing so by those who think writers are irredeemably shy or misanthropic. But I wanted to try public speaking and went out and hired coaches to teach me how to be better at it and, proudly, I’ve built myself a pretty good national speaking business.

And if I don’t trip going up on stage and break an arm, I plan to keep on writing as well as speaking. My only wish is that someday I will be half as good at speaking as Ohtani is at throwing a splitter that leaves batters shaking their heads and even, occasionally, smiling, in disbelief.

 

Written by: Don Yaeger for Forbes

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