Winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award on Thursday was the icing on the cake for Shohei Ohtani and his remarkable 2021 season of hitting career highs, scoring 46 home runs while starting 23 games for the Los Angeles Angels.
Ohtani’s unanimous selection made him the second Japanese to win an MVP in the US majors, after Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. And while Japan is now celebrating Ohtani and Suzuki as national heroes, they only achieved that status after being scorned at home for their different ways of playing professional baseball.
The composite photo shows Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani taking a swing in a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park in Baltimore, Maryland on Aug. 26, 2021. (Kyodo) == Kyodo
Suzuki won three Pacific League MVP awards and seven straight titles in Japan, but that was only after he was shunned by his first professional manager for two years. Ichiro’s teenage refusal to change his now iconic style of striking with his pendulous front leg swing forced him to spend most of his first two professional seasons in the minors.
Unlike Suzuki, a fourth-round draft pick from high school, Ohtani was a firm contender with a fiery fastball and large athletic body that caught the attention of US Boy Scouts The Bizarre Chain of Circumstances – and his willpower – made Ohtani the two-way sensation he is today.
When he was named AL MVP, Ohtani said his transition to the majors was easier because “the American fans, US baseball, were more accepted and embraced the whole two-way idea than when I was in Japan.”
However, being a two-way player would not have been an option if Ohtani had turned pro on a US team after high school, as he originally intended, or if he had entered the Nippon Professional Baseball draft without to mention his ambitions abroad.
That was because no team on either side of the Pacific would beat a teenager with such electric pitching talent unless they had to.
It was Ohtani’s desire to go his own way and turn pro overseas that forced the PL’s Nippon Ham Fighters to come up with innovative ideas to sign him and keep him in Japan.
Allowing Ohtani to be a two-way gamer was part of that deal and immediately made the happy and hardworking youngster different. Like Ichiro’s unusual batting stance, Ohtani’s relentless desire to both hit and throw has been perceived as a gimmick and a sort of affront to the established order of Japanese professional baseball.
While both players were incredibly talented at baseball, they also needed the help of managers who encouraged them to develop those talents in their own way.
Ichiro was free to do his thing in his third professional season with the Orix BlueWave when Hall of Fame manager Akira Ogi took over the reins. After two years of minor league pitching devastation, Suzuki became a national hero. Ohtani, meanwhile, had Day 1 support from former Fighters-Skipper Hideki Kuriyama.
In an environment that supported, rather than discouraging, their unique style, both players flourished, though Ohtani constantly struggled against the urge to adjust.
Ex-vocalists claimed year after year that Ohtani was selfish and could only reach his true potential as a hitter or pitcher by focusing on one thing or the other. But he saw no advantage in being something he wasn’t.
In February 2017 at the Okinawa Spring Camp, Ohtani told Kyodo News as the reigning PL MVP, “If I focused on one thing or the other, there is no guarantee that I would be better at it.”
When Ohtani went to the majors, there were no guarantees that his team would encourage him to hit like the Fighters did and like the Angels eventually did.
Some teams no doubt just wanted to pay lip service to his desire to hit him as a hard-throwing power pitcher.
Even at the 2017 winter baseball meet soon after Ohtani signed with his club, Angels manager Mike Sciosia was wary of Ohtani’s ability to produce as a designated hitter. Ohtani had to convince him and won the AL Rookie of the Year Award mainly because of his offensive.
Like Suzuki, Ohtani is who he is because of his physical talent, but probably also because of the personal drive necessary to develop a unique style in an environment that those who appear different may look askance at.
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