Shohei ohtani it is a wonder.
My major league career spanned the heart of the steroid era in baseball. His noxious cloud still makes us question today’s players and their motives, and tempts any player to consider modern shortcuts to gain an advantage.
But the biggest damage it did was rob us of our ability to wow, fans and players alike.
When I was a Little League player, playing for local businesses like Joey’s Children’s Wear or Carratura Construction, I would watch batting practice at a Major League game whenever we were early enough. Growing up in New Jersey, I would go to Yankee Stadium or Shea. I watched the trajectories, waiting four seconds for the ball to land. The baseballs looked like planets, orbiting the brilliance of talent on the field. Where would their orbit take them? Everything seemed possible.
I learned to judge the elevated ones. He needed to know if a fielder could catch him, or should have caught him, to speak intelligently in the inevitable debates. I was also able to hold my breath after feeling like the fence might be blown off. The definitive crescendo in the score of baseball.
I became one of those players, but I never lost the power to be amazed by incredible moments. It didn’t have to come from the guy with the best fastball or the most prodigious power, it could come from anyone, anywhere. He couldn’t want it, couldn’t come up with it, and even when he tried, he could never understand how it would be received. In 1999, I managed to exceed 200 hits in one season, but how could I have imagined that my 200 hit would come with a home run against the team that had traded me?
Just when I watched Vladimir Guerrero Sr. batting practice to see how hard and far he could hit a ball, or Billy Wagner throwing fireballs, I got even more excited when I saw Eddie Oropesa reunite with his family, who hadn’t seen in years after deserting from Cuba.
The game is rightfully called “The Show,” and from Curt Schilling’s precision of power to Scott Rolen’s trot after home run and Jimmy Rollins’s sixth sense on the bases, it was an everyday occurrence to be in awe of my teammates and my opponents. But you never knew when it was going to happen. You just watched the ingredients moving around in the mixing bowl until the right combination melted together and started to glow.
I played against the best; I played with the best. There are players who make you watch the replay to get a second look, and then there are players who make you look up at the stars. Ohtani is that star, distant for his unimaginable and unattainable talent, but our closest star for the brilliance he shows on the field, reinvigorating our game. It has all the ingredients to do magic at any time.
I can tell you some mechanical truths from Ohtani to give you context. I can’t recall that a batter could consistently hit a pitch that he was hit with and still hit it for a home run to the opposite field. Turn an emergency swing, a swing meant for defense and caution, into a weapon and reduce top-notch pitchers to space dust. But he can also knock out the best hitters with his arm, dishing out scintillating splitters and teleporting straights like 100 mph rockets. That combination puts him alone in the sky, a rare comet that reduces us all to Rosetta space probes trying to land on its surface.
However, he chooses not to be alone, but seeks to take the game with him, challenging us to see that he can follow.
Years ago, long before Ohtani’s arrival in the United States, I interviewed Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese player to play in the big leagues (for the San Francisco Giants). He came to the United States in the mid-1960s as we faced the social revolution, and was a teammate of future Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Duke Snider, Juan Marichal, and Gaylord Perry. I asked him which player from Japan he was most excited about at the time. He answered without hesitation.
A teenager at the time.
I went online and saw the power and the arm, the way Ohtani could turn on the radar, but it takes more than that to be an agent of change. Talent can be bought or even shot in your arm, but Ohtani had a soul, defied roles and labels, and lived in the previously unknown space between the batter’s box and the mound. You wonder if he could throw himself.
In my years in the sport, I have seen a team support a teammate when they lost their sister in their homeland of the Dominican Republic and the power of unity as we travel after 9/11 when players from all over the world they supported each other.
He was talking about how someone can support you, understand you, can change your heart without saying a word. Much of the game is non-verbal. A hand on your shoulder, a pat on the back, the look in your eyes.
On the field, in baseball, there isn’t much to say until time does its job. During the game, in the present, we signal, sign, gasp, speak without speaking. Who is covering on a double play, what pitch is coming, where should he play when the batter receives two strikes.
There is a universal language that we learn to understand. Much is unwritten, describing a variety of expectations around respect, honor, and celebration. It transforms and shapes without a sentence being uttered, edited by time, tradition kicks and screams along the way. It implores us not to become obsessed with predetermining who becomes editor.
The game is most hopeful when it embraces how its art knows nothing of the limitations of our self-imposed constructions … that our uniform, our city are bonds strong enough to keep the ego at the door, even though society might remind us your social batting lineup. A lineup that doesn’t win games.
I’ve seen balls hit a mile that defy what my experience told me was possible, and my suspended disbelief was not suspended when I learned the extent of the amount of performance improvement that plagued the game. It was like revealing the secret of a magic trick. A part of us wants to stay in our Little League uniform forever and revel in the blind faith of innocence. But while magic is important even to Major League Baseball players, integrity is more important.
Ohtani has renewed that sense of wonder, a chance to be in awe again, pulling back on the childhoods of perennial All-Stars and season ticket holders alike. He takes me back to my first home run over the fence in Little League, when I was 9 years old. I got along with Mike Wilkins, a blond haired Goliath who must have been 10 feet tall. I ran around the bases in a fog, amazed at how it produced, and then felt, the unfathomable. Ohtani is that opportunity to see how much a player, teammate or opponent, can surprise you and redraw the lines of our imagination. It pushes us to remember how important it is to open our hearts and minds to what is much greater than ourselves.
I am thankful for Ohtani because he has restored what the steroid era took away from me, a doubt that took away my ability to know what was truly great. The unfortunate truth that the wizards in my game cared more about themselves than anything else, ignoring the importance of how you get there. Or, as my mom would say, “They want to get there without going.”
So this week it’s fitting that Ohtani takes the field in Williamsport, home of the Little League World Series. It has the ability on a Major League Baseball field to make it look like you’re hitting in a park where it’s only 225 feet away from fences, but it also has the ability to turn opponents and All-Star teammates on their own. I am 10 years old.
The path you take is important, and Shohei Ohtani has reminded us that wonder is a necessary aspect of progress. Seeing our own reflection in others, expecting a better version of ourselves, knowing that our brilliance does not require the attenuation of others and that we can understand this to the core, without saying a word.