Being Shohei Ohtani seems like it should be an impossible task. It’s not even just hitting the home runs and striking out the home-run hitters that should be so much more difficult than he makes it look, but the weight of expectations that have built and been built upon him, and how he seemingly shrugs them off in a way that has him constantly smiling, laughing, and doing the goofy things that make him so perfect for fancams.
Given the Angels’ middling relevance, nowhere had the pressure on Ohtani been more intense than in Monday night’s Home Run Derby, where he was positioned as the undisputed main attraction in baseball’s showcase exhibition. As the leading dinger-slugger in the contest by a solid margin, and as a superstar the specific likes of which baseball hasn’t seen in a century, Ohtani’s participation in the derby was hyped as an iconic moment before it even happened. And as a result, the first minute of his performance was an extraordinarily anxious one. Not helped by some less-than-ideal pitching, Ohtani started out by hitting a bunch of doubles and singles, and the murmurs of the crowd grew louder and louder as everyone pretty quickly accepted that the night would be a disappointment, that Juan Soto’s total of 22 would be too much for him to catch after a rocky beginning.
Ohtani recovered to stroke a few and then called timeout with five dingers in 1:40. What was so endearing about him right then was that he did not look at all like a man who had let anybody down, let alone himself. He seemed overcome by endorphins. He was grinning. He was adorably startled by the woman offering him a drink. He got encouragement from Mike Trout on the phone.
And then Ohtani returned to put on the show everybody came to see. He hit 17 dingers in 2:20, setting the stage for multiple thrilling tiebreakers that not only put over the eventual semifinalist Juan Soto as a bigger star than he already is, but were worth admission all on their own.
And then the dueling hitters shared a wonderful little moment afterwards.
Because of Ohtani, this was the first Derby I had watched in probably a decade, and what was most striking to me was all the happy vibes emitted by each of the competitors, which I started really noticing as soon as Soto got swarmed by well-wishers during his first timeout. In addition to Ohtani, every hitter who struck around for more than a few swings had some sort of lovable moment that made me more interested in watching them in the second half. Runner-up Trey Mancini, for example, was the most inspiring story of the night. Nobody could have been more appreciative of being (and succeeding!) in the Derby than the Orioles first baseman, who just got back to baseball this year after missing all of 2020 as he was treated for colon cancer, and then defied the oddsmakers by winning his first two rounds.
Trevor Story, meanwhile, got a huge ovation from the hometown Rockies fans for what could be one of the final times. After 680 games and 145 dingers in a Colorado uniform, the pending free agent is a prime candidate to be traded to a contender at the deadline. He potentially said goodbye to Coors Field by besting Joey Gallo in the first round.
And then there was repeat champion Pete Alonso, who took home the trophy again by making it look easier than anybody else in the field. Alonso cranked up Mobb Deep, turned into a life-sized bobblehead, and was a consummate showman as he confidently crushed all the longballs he needed to make more money in one night than he will in this entire season.
There’s been so much exhausting hand-wringing and pontificating about what baseball needs to do to appeal to more people, for years now, but all that’s about is projecting one’s own concerns about the sport (or just one’s hang-ups in general) onto faceless masses, so I don’t have any interest in it. What I will say, though, is that as a certified fan of Guys Being Dudes, last night’s Derby was a real treat, as a bunch of good players (many of whom are on teams I don’t usually watch) had a visibly great time smacking dingers and encouraging each other to smack dingers, too. It felt like one of the last days of summer camp, but for grown-up superhumans. Or just an especially positive portrayal of what masculinity can be. Or, I guess more than anything, just some of the best baseball-launchers in the world getting together to launch baseballs, which is pure and joyful in its own right. Maybe baseball is doing pretty OK.