Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s WBC MVP, gets a taste of meaningful baseball


MIAMI — The great tragedy of Shohei Ohtani’s MLB career — and after seeing him in the World Baseball Classic finals, the tragedy feels like just a bit of an exaggeration — is that he never got a chance to start a team in October to square his shoulders.

Because during the World Baseball Classic, on the biggest baseball stage he’s ever had, Ohtani transcended.

Japan’s two-way star delivered the hardest-hit ball of the entire tournament, 118.7km/h, per MLB Research. He threw what passed for the toughest throw in the tournament, 102 miles per hour. He also hit one of the longest home runs in the tournament — 448 feet.

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And he also delivered the WBC’s most memorable speech when he addressed his teammates ahead of Tuesday’s final against the United States and reminded them that the only way to beat the Americans is to stop admiring them and to consider them equal.

“[Winning] doesn’t mean we scored a final goal, but it’s just a passing point,” Ohtani said through an interpreter after Japan’s 3-2 win on Tuesday. “Our team has just started. I think we have to prepare for the future.”

This is Ohtani, the next to push for more when he’s got it all. That his Los Angeles Angels didn’t play in October, that he was doomed to meaningless late-summer baseball throughout his MLB career, masks the fire that has burned so brightly for the past two weeks. And it never shone brighter than when he took on teammate and annual MVP nominee Mike Trout with two outs in the ninth inning on Tuesday.

“I looked at him. He’s a competitor, man,” Trout said. “That’s why he’s the best.”

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Ohtani has told reporters in the past that he expresses himself when he plays baseball his way — pitching and hitting like only he can. He is not wordy and at times ruthlessly uninteresting when speaking to the media. But he’s also direct, to the point, and unwavering in his goals.

For example, when asked what he hopes the next step in his career will be after winning World Baseball Classic MVP, Ohtani wasn’t thoughtful.

“Of course the new season will start, so this will be the first,” he said through an interpreter. “Obviously I have to start winning and that will be the next step.”

Watching Ohtani play with odds, watching his face with the game on the line made it clear to anyone who hadn’t seen it during his time with the Angels just how much winning means to him.

“What he does in the game is what probably 90 percent of the guys in this clubhouse did in little league or youth tournaments, and he can do it on the biggest stages,” said US manager Mark DeRosa. “He’s a unicorn for the sport. I think other guys will try but I don’t think they will be able to do it at his level.”

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The 28-year-old will be a free agent after this season. He has said on numerous occasions in recent years that he is frustrated that the Angels are not winning. But seeing him come alive in the WBC — seeing him sprint down the first baseline to hit a groundball and call himself safe as he rushes past the pocket — is to think he’s desperate to win want, after the chance to play games matter, day after day.

“He’s so diligent and he works so hard and he’s so meticulous about how he goes about his business,” said outfielder Lars Nootbaar. “It’s no surprise that he’s obviously extremely talented, but he also brings out the best in his abilities with the way he works.”

Ohtani is scheduled to start the opening day for the Angels against the Oakland Athletics, a game between two teams not necessarily expected to fight in their division, let alone for a title. He won’t get a chance to come in from the bullpen like a boxer entering the ring. He won’t play in front of packed stadiums every day. If all WBC players return to banality, Ohtani could return to something even worse if the Angels don’t turn into winners this season. He might find himself playing meaningless baseball, chasing numbers that only matter to him, stoic and regimented and unable to rise above himself.

Maybe the Angels will take off this year, just in time to convince him he can play baseball usefully there for years to come. Because meaningful baseball is where Ohtani belongs, where he thrives, where he achieves his full potential. And as the WBC made clear, playing meaningful baseball, Shohei Ohtani is illuminating the entire baseball world. Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s WBC MVP, gets a taste of meaningful baseball

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