OAKLAND, Calif. – Somewhere in this big old cement stadium, amid the flags and drums and horns, amid the empty green seats and the filled ones, under a steady sun that left players’ shadows pooled at their feet, there sat a middle-aged man and his wife.
Toru and Kayoko traveled 5,000 miles for this baseball game, and it was easy to imagine that the journey of a lifetime and the curiosity of millions would hold no greater worth than that of a son playing ball and his parents watching from the grandstands.
Their boy, Shohei, had left home and gone off to a place where they grow the boys and their games a little bigger. If that weren’t challenging enough, his intention was to stand beside those boys and play their game like no one had in a century. He was going to play the whole game, as he had even when Toru, the erstwhile weekend outfielder, was himself beginning to say goodbye to his small place in the game.
Little boys and girls all start that way, hitting and pitching and playing the important positions and on a good day pleasing their parents with their youthful elegance. The best of them last a few more years at it. The very best pick one side of the ball and do that and, if they are very good and very lucky, they get on a plane and maybe cross an ocean and hit in a starting lineup on opening day against a big-league baseball team.
Then, three days later, one of them, exactly one of them – as far as anyone has witnessed lately – will become the starting pitcher against that same team.
And so on Thursday afternoon at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, down there on what they call Rickey Henderson Field, amid the pomp and fireworks and naked hope, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Pujols and Trout, Toru and Kayoko’s boy took his shot at exceptional. At impossible. At legendary. At, hell, scratching out a hit or two and keeping this thing alive.
The great experiment began with a single to right field. Actually, as it often does, it began with a batting practice that confirmed Shohei Ohtani can and will always rake old men throwing 60-mph heaters. Jose Canseco, standing behind the cage with his arms folded and wearing a white baseball cap – backwards, naturally – watched ball after ball carry to uninhabited places.
“Very fast hands,” he mused. “Sneaky power. He’s got sneaky power.”
Ohtani was the designated hitter. He batted eighth, befitting a 23-year-old rookie who accumulated four hits — all of them singles — in 32 spring at-bats, all while the Angels managed his swings and bullpen days and start days and days on his feet and about everything else that might’ve had an impact on all this. By then, many folks had decided Ohtani’s swing – as it was – might never work at the big-league level, and still Ohtani showed up for work every day, and he abandoned his leg kick, and maybe that’ll be enough. Or it won’t. It’s why he’s here, to find out. And why the Angels had him there, to find out. Why Toru and Kayoko followed, and hoped, and sat through 11 innings (presumably), to find out.
Ohtani finished his first afternoon with one hit and five at-bats. He showed a tendency to swing early. Perhaps that was the heft of the moment, to swing early in case it was the only reasonable strike he’d see, occasionally to swing hard in case he hit it. He grounded four balls to the right side of the infield. The first, against A’s starter Kendall Graveman, beat first baseman Matt Olson on the backhand side. He was, for a half-hour or so, a 1.000 hitter. The A’s were kind enough to redirect that baseball into the Angels’ dugout. His next three at-bats concluded with routine grounders to second base or first, and in his last he struck out on a 94-mph fastball from reliever Chris Hatcher.
While Ohtani did not appear necessarily overmatched, he did seem at times defensive, taking cautious swings in hitter’s counts. Perhaps, when he catches up with the U.S. baseball notion that committed swings and the strikeouts that might result are not only acceptable but even encouraged, the power will show. Many more at-bats will come, maybe even on Friday night, though Angels manager Mike Scioscia did not promise that. He will pitch for the Angels on Sunday.
Afterward, Ohtani said he was happy for the hit and unhappy for the outs and especially unhappy the Angels lost. The droves of reporters and their questions do not seem to bother him. He answers questions succinctly and without revealing too much of himself, and his translator repeats the answers in a voice almost too soft to hear. The experience, this one in the Oakland Raiders’ locker room, a curtain draped between it and the A’s family room, can feel like everyone is speaking through throw pillows. He is, of course, just 23, and if he shaves more than once a week it’s probably overkill, and the course he’s chosen would be difficult enough without the daily analyses.
Still, he smiles. Still, he tries. Still, his eye contact with his translator can be quizzical or bemused or fatigued. And then there’ll be more tomorrow.
All in all, it is very impressive, and he granted that baseball, the one that will symbolize the beginning of what this will become, is special. When Toru and Kayoko return to Japan, the baseball will return with them, though perhaps it was a matter of convenience.
“Since my parents are here,” he said, “might as well give it to them.”
As for their presence here, Shohei smiled thinly and said, “I was glad they made it safe, all the way over.”
They almost certainly feel the same about him. The journey is long, no matter the route. Sometimes the ball gets through the infield. A lot of times it doesn’t. And still the road remains the road.
“It’s really been a learning experience,” he said. “It’s still too early to say whether it’s going to be more harder or not. It’s going to be a long season. Throughout the season there’s probably parts where I will feel this part was harder or this part was not as hard. I just want to enjoy the season.”
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