There isn’t a lot to love about Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif. Opened in 1966, it’s one of the older parks in the Major Leagues and even though it has undergone a massive renovation, it shows its age when you walk its concourses and browse its concession offerings.
Perhaps the best thing about the place, at least this season, is that it’s not only the home of the Mike Trout, the Roy Hobbs of our modern time, but Shohei Ohtani, the 23-year-old Japanese sensation who seems to have galvanized the vast population of Japanese, Korean and Chinese baseball fans in Southern California.
Just last week, when the Angels were playing Oakland with Trout on the disabled list, hundreds of fans in Ohtani “17” home jerseys cheered his every move and gesture. They love him.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the first 16 Angels games on television this season saw ratings jump 120% overall, and 191% in the 25-54 age group, over the same number of games last season.
Meanwhile, the Japanese network, NHK, televises games in the early morning. An Associated Press report from Tokyo ran this headline: “Ohtani fails to homer in fourth straight game.”
Of course, you know the kid’s story by now. He came to the Majors with the ability and the intent to become the first two-way (pitching and position player) performer in the game since, well, The Babe himself.
And it didn’t take long for him to make his mark.
In his first start as a pitcher, Ohtani struck out the first batter. In his first at-bat at Angel Stadium, he hit a three-run homer. He thus became the first player to start a game as a pitcher and hit a homer run in his next game as a non-pitcher since The Babe in 1921 with the Yankees.
According to the Washington Post, he also became the first player since the Red Sox’ Wes Ferrell in 1937 to have four hits, a home run and a win in his first six Major League games. And he is the first rookie with at least three hits and a win in his first six games since Dutch Stryker of the Boston Braves in 1924.
The pitching part of his arsenal seemed to come to an end on June 6 when he was diagnosed with a Grade 2 tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. In most cases, that’s first clue that Tommy John surgery might be next.
Last weekend, after receiving stem-cell and platelet-rich plasma injections to treat his elbow, he threw 23 pitches in a bullpen session.
“He’s been terrific,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told MLB.com. “I think that he’s feeling very, very comfortable with the fact that everything is sound in his elbow. As we continue to test it moving forward in the next couple weeks, we’ll get a better idea of exactly where he is.”
In nine starts, Ohtani’s ERA is 3.10 with 61 strikeouts over 49.1 innings.
But it’s the way the Angels, since Spring Training, have chosen to insulate him from the dozens of reporters interested in speaking to him, including a large assemblage from Japan, that has made his rookie season even more interesting.
Ohtani’s press availabilities are restricted to only after the games he plays, which are more frequent than you might suspect. But the Angels also do not allow one-on-one sessions to limit the amount of time he spends.
What this means is, if an out-of-town journalist wanders into the Angels clubhouse looking to shoot the breeze with Ohtani, he is out of luck. Those restrictions are not limited to conversations. The Angels also requested that media not gather in the bleachers above the Los Angeles bullpen when Ohtani would throw.
He teammates also seem to love him because he came to town without a lot of baggage in the way of an entourage or massive ego. Remember, he came to the Majors two seasons before turning 25, when he would have been entitled to a massive salary. Instead, the Angels paid a $20 million fee to his Japanese team and a $2.3 million bonus and Major League minimum $545,000 to Ohtani. Believe it or not, he is the Angels’ least expensive player.
A New York Times story about him earlier this season, made reference to the difference is Ohtani’s approach as opposed to Daisuke Matsuzaka’s rock-star arrival in Boston and Masahiro Tanaka’s in New York, when he came with his pop-star wife.
Ohtani showed up with an interpreter and lives in an unostentatious apartment near the stadium. When he played in Japan, he lived in a dormitory.
“It’s almost a modern style of a monk,” Anri Uechi, a reporter who covers the Yankees for Kyodo News told The Times.
As of Friday, the monk was hitting .269 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs with 69 strikeouts in 212 at-bats.