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Instant classic? New Balance unveils Ohtani 1, Shohei's first signature cleat

June 20, 2024

Over the course of his remarkable seven-year career in the Major Leagues, Shohei Ohtani hasn't met his match often. But the generational unicorn had to adjust a bit when confronted with the likes of Gravedigger and El Toro Loco.

About a year and a half ago, the team at New Balance brought a prototype for the Ohtani 1, the two-time American League MVP’s highly anticipated first signature cleat, to Angel Stadium for him to offer feedback. But when they got there, they found the entire field covered with dirt and dumpsters in preparation for the Monster Jam Tour. Even Shohei can’t pull rank with a bunch of 12,000-pound monster trucks, so he was sequestered to the bullpen, the only area of the park with grass to test the shoe.

Thankfully, a field jammed with enormous vehicles was one of very few speed bumps New Balance faced while working with Shohei to develop the Ohtani 1, which will be available in cleat and turf versions with a corresponding apparel line as part of a popup experience on July 14 during All-Star Week in Arlington, and then the next day on New Balance's online shop for Home Run Derby Monday.

As the first player in a century to both hit and pitch at an extremely high level, the now-Dodgers superstar had unique demands for his cleats and gear, and the team at New Balance felt honored to have the opportunity to deliver for such an exceptional athlete – especially one whom they found humble, agreeable and easy to work with.

“We realized really quickly that consistency is paramount to Shohei,” New Balance senior product manager Matt Nuzzo said. “He doesn’t want a pitching shoe that has a big toe on it and has a different feel underfoot. He likes to be consistent and comfortable in his shoes no matter what he’s doing.

“It kind of embodied what he is, right? We needed a shoe that could do it all – the one that does it all – and that’s where he is as a player.”

That approach aligns with New Balance’s pitch to Shohei when he initially joined the brand. Fully aware of the high standard he has set for himself since his youth baseball days, New Balance vowed to help give him the tools to become the greatest player he can possibly be, while helping him use his platform to grow the game globally.

So after discussing with Shohei what has worked for him in the past, Nuzzo, designer Dan Webb and developer Todd Hewett honed in on three main points of focus for his first cleat -- comfort, durability and ground feel. The first two speak for themselves. But the third required a departure from every other cleat in New Balance’s arsenal.

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Courtesy of New Balance

As Nuzzo describes it, players in Japan typically wear a more low-profile shoe than what is usually used in the Western hemisphere in order to feel the ground better and maximize leverage. Through biometric research and multiple in-depth conversations with Shohei, the designers diminished the midsole foam, allowing him to feel more connected with the field underneath him. Given his level of performance this season, the cleat is clearly having its desired effect.

“Everything Shohei does is through the lens of performance,” Nuzzo said. “We talked about that a ton. If it makes him play better and he’s convinced of it, he’s going to wear it.”

As hands-on as Shohei was with the technical aspects of the Ohtani 1, he was somewhat less so when it came to aesthetics for the cleat, reiterating mainly that he wanted a “classic” look. He has largely opted for standard white or grey colorways this season to match the Dodgers’ home and away jerseys, though he’s recently dabbled with a striking royal blue model with hints of red.

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The first retail versions of the signature cleat will be a bit flashier, with gold accents to match New Balance’s view of him as “the gold standard.” Shohei will wear them for the first time during All-Star Week, when the player and brand’s shared vision will come into sharper focus.

“I have a deep respect for the heritage of baseball and the sport itself,” Shohei said in a statement, “and I love that the collection pays tribute to the traditional old-school style while bringing a new-school twist.”

The Ohtani 1 does possess some details particular to its namesake, most notably a triangular pattern on the toebox of the shoe. In architecture, triangles tend to connote strength and stability; New Balance was specifically inspired here by the geometric designs seen on the ceilings of several NPB stadiums in Japan.

Nagoya Dome, 2018 (Getty Images)

For the apparel, Shohei worked closely with New Balance’s cutting-edge Tokyo Design Studio and creative director Shugo Moritani. The pieces they developed have artistic nods to things like the pitching mound and the stitches on a baseball, and in a neat wrinkle, many have double pockets to salute his status as a two-way threat. And the logo for the collection depicts Shohei not hitting or pitching but running the bases, connoting his advanced level of athleticism.

“Ohtani absolutely fits in with New Balance’s performance-based brand identity,” said Pinder, host of the Sockjig Sneaker Podcast. “He is obviously a top-tier performer and has unique talents with both hitting and pitching.”

With Ohtani already a global marketing force, Pinder sees a big opportunity for New Balance to highlight his organic cool factor and personality over time.

“New Balance is in a position where they can create something unique for Ohtani,” Pinder added. “Some ideas write themselves, like perhaps [they could produce] a video of him pitching to himself. New Balance is not known for these type of commercials … but with a talent like Ohtani, a lot of the heavy lifting of having that X factor is already done for you.”

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In the short term, the gala rollout of Shohei's first shoe serves as a watershed moment for the player and the brand alike. New Balance has made strides with their baseball division in recent seasons, including the release of a pair of well-received signature models for Mets star Francisco Lindor. Even before the release of the Ohtani 1, 20 percent of MLB players were already wearing New Balance cleats in 2024.

With Shohei on board and fully bought in, all parties are thinking big in ways that extend well past the national pastime.

“Certainly we’ve had a bit of an uptick, and Ohtani’s payoff is not going to be solely in baseball,” Nuzzo said. “I think he validated our premium nature in the sport, but he’s [also] now a face of the brand alongside [tennis star] Coco Gauff, [soccer standout] Bukayo Saka, [Olympic track champ and World Record holder] Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and [two-time NBA champion] Kawhi Leonard.

“It’s a time that’s really transcendent for our brand. So having an athlete as transcendent as Ohtani? What a partnership.”