As we celebrate Shohei Ohtani’s unanimous selection as the 2021 American League MVP, we should realize that this is a celebration of how badly baseball professionals get things wrong.
Baseball people in Japan and the United States are today jumping up and down celebrating Ohtani’s success, the way MLB now celebrates Jackie Robinson breaking the racist color barrier MLB itself imposed.
“…He (Ohtani) is a child saying, ‘I want to do it, I want to do it (be a two-way player)….It’s absolutely disrespectful to other players”—Japan Hall of Famer Isao Harimoto on Ohtani in February 2016
Ohtani told MLB network, “America was more welcoming of my being a two-way player than when I first started in Japan.”
America and MLB were “more welcoming” because Ohtani came to the U.S. majors with the leverage of a 23-year-old with a 100 mph fastball who could choose what team he signed for. Teams were willing to gamble on Ohtani’s bat in order to secure Ohtani the pitcher.
That is the central truth about Ohtani’s remarkable success: At the start, nobody in pro baseball wanted it to happen, because no one expected it to be successful.
If Ohtani had not been able to throw 100 mph as a high schooler with a big athletic frame, he never would have wound up hitting 46 career major league home runs, period.
“How wonderful that he achieved this much,” they now say, without a hint of the irony that the pro baseball establishment did everything it possibly could to thwart players like Ohtani by assuming they could not succeed without even giving them a shot.
People are honestly and truly excited about breakthrough players. Unlike Ohtani, Jackie Robinson was, more than just a baseball star, he was a symbol to a nation that its dependence on racial inequality might crumble, and man has that been a painful lesson for many to this day.
Ohtani comes with no such social baggage or importance, but he is a reminder that establishments often get things wrong, which makes his triumph particularly sweet.
If Ohtani had not been a prize high school pitching prospect who attracted the attention of MLB scouts, none of this would be possible.
Had he entered the NPB draft as a top pitching prospect, none of this would have happened.
Had he gone to the States straight out of Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki High School, none of this would have happened.
It only happened because Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters needed to give him reasons to change his mind and turn pro in Japan.
While Japan’s pro baseball establishment and leading talking heads were not universally against the idea of a team developing a two-way player, only a few iconoclasts, like Hiromitsu Ochiai and Katsuya Nomura, publicly encouraged him.
The greater number shared the view of Isao Harimoto, the only player to ever get 3,000 hits in Japan’s major leaguers.
In 2016, Nikkan Sports reviewed comments from Harimoto, Japan’s leading baseball curmudgeon. Harimoto, who hosts the sports segment every Sunday on the TBS Network’s weekly news roundup “Sunday Morning, spoke after his visit to the Nippon Ham Fighters camp in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, in February 2016, where he watched Ohtani work on hitting inside pitches.
“It’s all because he says he wants to do (both). But it’s the adults around him who have to persuade him against it. Because he’s a child saying, ‘I want to do it, I want to do it,’ it just sounds like selfishness. It’s absolutely disrespectful to other players because he’s taking playing time away from others as pinch-hitters, and designated hitters. He has to decide soon. A pitcher like him? They don’t come around very often.”
A year earlier, Harimoto commented on Ohtani’s future after a sophomore season in which he hit 10 home runs and won 11 games.
“This is the critical moment (for doing both),” Harimoto said. “If he keeps this up through five pro seasons, it will come to nothing. Last year, did he do well to win 10 games and hit 10 home runs? I don’t think so. If he were playing golf, that would barely make the tournament cut line. If he won 15 games and hit 25 homers… He has to narrow it down to one thing because he wants to go to America.”
In 2016, Ohtani won his first major league MVP award, although it wasn’t unanimous. He got 253 out of 254 first-place votes to win the Pacific League’s big prize, with the other first-place vote, perhaps cast by Harimoto, going to Fighters middle reliever Naoki Miyanishi.