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Shohei Ohtani Is Just Getting Started

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There may come a point at which baseball fans come to fully realize the unicornian nature of Shohei Ohtani and start flocking to his games as though this may never come their way again. Then again, the Los Angeles Angels were playing in Oakland Saturday — in a doubleheader, no less — so Ohtani’s 100th home run and 200th walk in 444 career games were actually viewed only by 7,737 fans.

In fairness, A’s fans are in the early stages of an organic boycott of the John Fisher ownership, and to be even more fair than that (a revolting notion, I know), the first game drew 12,719, which means that 20,456 actually saw Ohtani bat 10 times in 18 innings. It was an equally unsatisfying split for all parties involved; Oakland took the day side 4-3, the Angeles won the evening 9-1. A veritable feast for people working on a 300-calorie-a-day diet, baseball-wise.

Ohtani’s 100th homer, which he cleverly described later as “a big number,” was your standard 418-foot rocket off the A’s unfortunate Adam Oller, who had earlier allowed a grand slam to Taylor Ward and whose ERA this season is a deeply inflationary 12.27. There isn’t much point in listing the mathematical significance of anything Ohtani does, because it always boils down to three names — Babe Ruth, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui — but the phrase “a big number” will come up again and again.

Ohtani, though, is the come-on in what is becoming a fascinating Angels team — one of baseball’s most enduring oxymorons. The Angels have outdrawn the Dodgers exactly one time in 61 seasons, and have only one World Series to their credit. They’ve never been the one thing Southern California craves most — the cool thing to pay to watch. Indeed, Rob Manfred, the Guardian Of The Game People Like To Hate, used the best Angel ever, Mike Trout, as a reason the game is losing popularity among mammals.

And when we say “best Angel ever” to refer to Trout, we mean that to include Ohtani. Trout is having what paces out to his most extraordinary season ever, much better on its face than any other player in the game. The problem is, he has operated in a relative competitive vacuum, as the Angels have made the postseason only once in his 11 full years and got swept by Kansas City. The Angels have been what they are in mythology — entirely ethereal.

But for all the Trout, and secondarily to Ward and Jared Walsh and Reid Detmers’ no-hitter and the team’s attempts to prove that it does finally understand the value of pitching, Ohtani is its entertainment core, and if there is a value in being the most amazing player, it has yet to reveal itself to the greater populace. The curiosity of Ohtani has eased into the anticipation of Ohtani, but even with more support around him (Trout, for example, missed almost the entirety of last year) the rest of the nation has not yet glommed onto the concept of Ohtanimania. The Angels have never been higher than 15th in road attendance since they signed him, and his pitching starts seem to have no additional drawing power yet either at home or on the road — at least not through his four seasons of doing a thing only Ruth ever did as well.

And maybe baseball has put itself in a position in which there are no more visiting team manias to enjoy. Or maybe it’s this Michele Tafoya take — that there is actually too much Ohtani despite all the evidence:

This suggestion, that the most amazing thing baseball has produced in decades is frankly annoying, is an odd world view, but one that may be more prevalent than we realize. Maybe Shohei Ohtani and a suddenly more sprightly Angels team is still insufficient to capture the greater imagination — but it’s not due to his not doing enough, or that he is being overexposed.

Then again, the greatest hope resides in the back end of Ohtani’s “a big number” quote, specifically this:

“I’m proud of it. But it’s early in the season.”

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