If Shohei Ohtani won’t come to Toronto, then Toronto must come to Ohtani, and it did, or rather a small bit of it did.
When Ohtani was named the American League rookie of the year this past autumn, it was cause for celebration, not only in Southern California and Japan, but in Toronto as well.
A year ago, a group of dedicated Blue Jays fans opened their hearts to the 24-year-old slugging pitcher in the hope they might encourage him to take his act to Toronto. And though that effort failed, the group cheered on Ohtani when they could in person and from afar with their website shoheiohtani.ca.
The story begins with Blue Jays fan John Yeh’s disappointment when the Blue Jays failed to land another Japanese pitcher in 2012, and when he caught word of Ohtani, he and his colleagues hatched a plan.
“My buddies and I were watching the 2017 World Baseball Classic, and the North American announcers were talking about this kid who threw triple-digits (in miles per hour) and hit, so I started following him,” Yeh said this summer by telephone.
“Even though he wasn’t playing in the WBC, they were still talking about him (Ohtani). They were showing highlights, the one that showed him hitting the ball into the ceiling at Tokyo Dome.”
Yeh sold his friends on the idea of a fan club, and mapped out a plan to show Ohtani Toronto if he needed persuasion.
“The Jays really went hard to get him,” David Pollard, another executive director, said. “We all thought, ‘This is perfect.’ He’s played in Sapporo for five years and like Sapporo, Toronto has four seasons. The Jays have a huge fan base. We have a large Japanese community. We thought it would be perfect for him.”
Ohtani’s decision to play in Anaheim, California, for the Angels came as a shock to his Canadian supporters.
“Dave and I started talking, and Dave was supposed to show Shohei around,” Yeh said. “He (Ohtani) never showed up, because he stayed in L.A. (to meet teams). We had put together an itinerary. We were going to take him to Unionville. It’s a quiet, quaint little town up north.”
The fact that he didn’t become a Blue Jay, proved only a slight bump in the road for his Canadian fans. Pollard traveled to Arizona to see Ohtani in spring training and to present him with a pair of mittens like those worn by Canada’s team at February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
“We were excited years ago about getting Yu Darvish, because the Jays have always needed pitching. And my buddies and I wanted to take it more seriously. We wanted to host him. We thought if we started something, the chances of signing him would be a little more bright,” Yeh said.
When the Angels traveled to Toronto, his local fan club turned out.
“The Jays fans were so appreciative. Shohei didn’t have to do anything. The Jays fans applauded him so thoroughly, just showed their appreciation for this guy,” said Pollard, who had been hoping to see Ohtani with the mittens he’d brought to Arizona.
“I got word later that when he came to Toronto, he was going to hold up those mittens. We followed him when he left the field because he had to go through one exit. I said, ‘The gloves. The gloves.’ But Ippei (interpreter Ippei Mizuhara) pushed him away so fast. He said, ‘I’ll wear them.’ But he never did.”
“I expected him to hold a press conference and hold them up. He’d say, ‘These are from Dave.’ But it didn’t happen.”
“We would have loved to have had him.”