Ohtani's hometown pulls out all the stops

Rice paddy field art, a monthly "Ohtani day" and a hand replica?

August 17th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget, photos via Oshu City (Facebook)

Shohei Ohtani is already a legend. He's baseball's unicorn.

What he's done this season -- hitting and pitching like a Marvel superhero -- has never been done before. He leads baseball with 39 home runs. He's 7-1 with a 2.93 ERA. One hundred years from now, people will be looking back at this season and wonder whether it was real or some baseball myth that got passed down decade to decade, becoming more exaggerated with each retelling.

He has fans in Southern California and all over baseball; his powers are even reaching beyond the MLB fan pool.

But the place where perhaps his most avid followers lie is a city in the northeast of Japan. A place known for its choice beef, fertile farmlands and fiery street festivals. It's Shohei Ohtani's hometown: Oshu City.

The City Promotion Division for Oshu City, and its head, Mr. Katsuyoshi Ohkoshi, have made it a focus to root on their native son -- and spread the word of Ohtani's greatness to tourists. So much so that they created a cheer squad, or ōendan, for the Angels superstar a few years ago.

Even greeting me on Zoom, Ohkoshi was dressed in an Ohtani shirsey with an Ohtani "two-way star" poster directly behind him -- showing off an excited smile with every question he answered.

The cheer squad began when Ohtani embarked on his MLB career in 2018. It's grown since then and, of course, has become incredibly passionate this season.

"The cheer squad first started with 10 people," Ohkoshi said. "But after getting it rolling, we opened it up to a larger group and businesses. Right now, there are more than 180 supporters of the cheer squad enrolled. And, in terms of Ohtani Day and the 17th and wearing red, initially it was just the staff of the city of Oshu, but now this has spread out to local businesses surrounding the city. That includes banks, utility companies and electric companies."

Ohtani Day? Yes, Ohtani Day.

The Angels All-Star wears No. 17, so on the 17th of every single month (today, in fact), Ohkoshi and his cheer group wear an Ohtani No. 17 Angels shirsey. As Ohkoshi said, that idea has spread to local people outside of the group. So, if you walk into a bank or need your heat adjusted, there's a good chance the person you're dealing with might be dressed in Angel red.

Photo via Oshu City (Facebook)
Photo via Oshu City (Facebook)

"These days on the 17th, you might also just see general fans, people of the city walking around with the 17 T-shirts," Ohkoshi told me. "And that's just really exciting for us."

Maybe they're re-enacting Ohtani's latest highlight.

Photo via Oshu City (Facebook)

Perhaps they're voting.

Photo via Oshu City (Facebook)

Or they could be celebrating while doing yard work.

Photo via Oshu City (Facebook)

Some of the city's biggest leaders even get involved.

"The mayor also participates on Ohtani Day," Ohkoshi told me. "Even if there are public affairs or public appearances on the 17th, he'll make sure he has the red and 17 on. Personally, he's always checking his stats and following what Ohtani has been doing."

Of course, there's more than just simply wearing shirts: Ohtani's giant likeness has been displayed along rice paddies in the countryside's landscape.

Photo via Oshu City (Facebook)

"[The rice paddy art] was something we did in 2018 and 2019," Ohkoshi said. "Unfortunately, due to Covid, we've refrained from doing anything with the rice paddies and inviting tourists."

Wind chimes were recently hung up in a section of the city, with the description: "I'm rooting for Ohtani with the tones of wind chimes from OSHU CITY!!"

Photo via Oshu City (Facebook)

But one of the most amazing and, well, unique, decorations is a replica of Ohtani's hand. It's on display in the lobby of Oshu City Hall.

Photo via Oshu City

"This is something we created before Ohtani went over to Major League Baseball," Ohkoshi said. "Using a local business's technology -- laser technology -- we created Ohtani's hand. So, those who visit the city can shake his hand or look at it."

Maybe it can even show you how to throw baseball's most unhittable pitch?

Ohkoshi and his group try to watch as many Angels games as possible. It's hard, though, with the time difference. Most weekday games happen in the morning, when the staff is working. But there is a monitor set up in the town people hall for tourists passing by (or for government workers to sneak in a quick Shohei at-bat). During the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby -- events where Ohtani was the do-everything star -- the TV room had people consistently streaming in to watch. (COVID-19 prevented the city from a full-blown watch party).

"We would see people, visitors coming to the town hall and stop their feet for a second," Ohkoshi told me. "[They'd] watch what Ohtani was doing and pass on."

Photo via Oshu City (Facebook)

Ohkoshi told me the mayor was "invigorated" and "energized" by Ohtani's performance in the Midsummer Classic.

But can No. 17's unprecedented season continue? Ohkoshi and his team -- who manually keep track of their star's daily numbers with hitting and pitching stat boards in City Hall -- believe so.

"Our biggest hope is that Ohtani is able to complete the season without injury," Ohkoshi said. "That he finishes the season well and happy and excited about baseball. In terms of statistics, as the home run leader, we hope he continues on and he can hit about 60 home runs. As a pitcher, our hope is he can get to two digits and get 10 wins in the season."

Ohkoshi would also love to see the Angels get on the grandest stage in October and reach the playoffs. If that happens, they'd do a live watch of the games with as many hometown fans as possible.

It's funny, though, even in the literal place where Ohtani was born and grew up and his parents still live, residents can't believe he's from there. His talent is so otherworldly, how could he come from this city of just over 100,000 people? Similar to the rest of us, his own personal cheer squad thinks he hails from another planet.

"We've been cheering on Ohtani for a very long time," Ohkoshi told me, smiling. "But he's kind of ascended to a different level this season. Talking with friends, talking with people around the city -- he's become so great that we ask ourselves: Did he really grow up here? Is he someone from this city?"

Big thanks to MLB.com's Sho Kurematsu for translating