Ohtani: Baseball Hero, Gone But Not Forgotten

As a younger baseball player, Ohtani was asked how he felt about seeing Japanese baseball players leave Japan for MLB careers. He answered that he never felt players were abandoning their traditions or homeland. Rather, he believed the MLB opportunities would only serve to showcase the superhero talents of Japanese players to the world. Shohei never felt the greatness of a player would be diminished by crossing the Pacific. He didn’t know then that his comments would very soon ring true for him.

Since signing with the Angels, Ohtani’s popularity continues to soar across Japan. A recent Kyodo news survey confirmed Ohtani is still Japan’s most popular athlete. I had the opportunity to attend several Ohtani games during spring training in Tempe Arizona. Although at first it looked like a dismal start for Ohtani, it was apparent he continued to be a superstar among his fan base in a new land. Hundreds of Japanese journalists and an assortment of giggling Japanese school girls filled whole sections of Diablo stadium, excited to capture footage of every play. MLB Ohtani jerseys quickly sold out as fans scrambled to make purchases.

Back home in Japan, workers in office towers continue to be given “break times” to watch Ohtani at bat in broadcasted MLB games. TV shows featuring fan club members dominate the sports airways as every aspect of Shohei’s life is dissected. Discussions about everything, from diet to the qualities he would look for in his future wife, fill hours of conversation.

Prior to games in many Japanese stadiums, Shohei’s MLB feats are highlighted on large
stadium screens to applauding fans. Package deals to attend MLB games in North America have become a hot ticket item. Outside the USA, Canada’s largest Shohei Ohtani fan club has become a reality.

My sense is that this continued support is because Shohei has never abandoned who he is. He isn’t becoming just an American MLB player; he remains true to his culture and, in Japanese tradition, is humble to his approach of the samurai tradition of “nitoryu” (two weapons as one): batting and pitching. This is truly a one way cultural exchange for MLB.

By: Dave Pollard

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