'This guy's crazy': All-Stars in awe of Ohtani

July 13th, 2021

DENVER -- Let's just get right to the point about what is doing at this All-Star Week at Coors Field.

"This guy's crazy," Nationals outfielder Kyle Schwarber said Monday. "He's going to do the Home Run Derby and then start [for the American League] and then hit in the All-Star Game?"

Yes. Thanks to the fan vote that made him the AL's starting DH, the player vote that made him one of the starting pitchers on the AL roster and the decision of Rays and AL manager Kevin Cash to give him the ball at the outset of Tuesday's All-Star Game at Coors Field, the 27-year-old Ohtani is doing all of those things.

"This is what the fans want to see," Cash said. "It's personally what I want to see."

Not that what we've seen from Ohtani in the regular season isn't crazy enough.

You've heard the comparisons to Babe Ruth and the great two-way stars of the Negro Leagues. You've seen the epic blasts and the 100 mph heat. You've taken note as Ohtani accomplishes one historical nugget after another. (With 33 home runs, he has as many as Roger Maris had at the 1961 All-Star break, and -- oh by the way -- he's also stolen 12 bags and is on pace to strike out 160 batters with a mid-3's ERA.)

But this All-Star experience takes everything we know about Ohtani's unique place in the National Pastime and lifts it up, well, a Mile High. It began with Ohtani’s entertaining effort in a first-round Derby matchup with the Nationals’ Juan Soto that went to two swing-offs and ended with an early exit, and continues with Tuesday’s tilt.

The most-watched, must-watch player in MLB is, without question, the star among stars at this 91st Midsummer Classic. Because he is the only player doing literally everything, save singing the "Star-Bangled Banner" and working the register at the Todd Helton Burger Shack.

And so the question must be asked: Why is the man with the Majors' wackiest workload taking on added responsibility at this exhibition?

For Ohtani, it comes down to a sense of duty.

"I'm expecting to be pretty fatigued and exhausted after these two days," he said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. "But there's a lot of people that want to watch it, and I want to make those guys happy. That's why I'm going to do it."

But what of Ohtani's duty to himself?

Though the numbers debunk the supposed "Home Run Derby Curse," we don't have any data on whether that power presentation has a long-term impact on the next day's starting pitcher … because, um, how would we? And other stars have pulled out of this and other All-Star Games because of nagging injuries they prefer to nurse for what few days off in a row they have in the 162-game grind.

"This game," Schwarber said, "is the farthest thing from easy."

That all makes Ohtani's decision (he was, for the record, the first player to commit to the Derby) to do everything all the more striking. He has made magic this season, but he's also less than three years removed from Tommy John surgery and still staking his signature place in a game with a grueling season and a daunting injury rate.

Also, importantly, he is two and a half seasons away from free agency.

So what does his agent, Nez Balelo, think?

"It's great," Balelo said with a shrug and a big smile. "I'm excited for him. I'm looking forward to it, because he's really wanted to do it, and it's going to be great for the game. He knows his body, he knows what he needs to do, and he thought about it. It wasn't just a knee-jerk decision. It was well thought-out."

Ohtani had thought about a career in the Major Leagues long before he arrived in the United States. When he was drafted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball Pacific League prior to the 2013 season, he negotiated the right to move to MLB when he felt ready for the challenge. And he deemed himself ready after the 2017 season, when he was just 23. He could have waited two more years and not been subject to international signing rules that limited his earning power, but he wanted his shot.

That meant every single Major League team could afford Ohtani.

"We wanted him," Dodgers and NL manager Dave Roberts said with a laugh at Monday's press conference.

"So did we," added Cash. "So did we."

Everybody did. But the Angels, thanks in no small part to the great Mike Trout (whose absence from this event due to injury is, thankfully, made less jarring thanks to Ohtani's awesomeness), won him over. That left players on other clubs to observe from afar as the Great Ohtani Experiment began at the Halos' Spring Training facility in Tempe, Ariz., in 2018.

"It was curiosity more than anything," Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler said. "You hear he can hit and pitch and all this. But you've got to see it."

Skepticism is easy when someone is attempting to do something unprecedented in modern times. It only amplified when Ohtani was injured.

Here in 2021, though, with the Angels letting Ohtani flourish on both sides of the ball, it has been one jaw-dropping, record-breaking feat after another.

"We always envisioned this," Balelo said. "He's finally got a chance to play and felt like his legs are underneath him, his body's underneath him, and his arm's underneath him. He's able to show his true talent. And it's been fun."

As Ohtani has compiled his 178 OPS+ (or 78% better than league average) as a hitter and 132 ERA+ (or 32% better than league average) as a pitcher, players on other teams just laugh, provided they aren't in the midst of being tormented by those numbers.

"I mean, I wasn't there, obviously," said Cubs third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant, "but I don't think Babe Ruth was throwing 100 mph and hitting the ball 500 feet."

So yeah, it has been fun.

Never more fun than this week.

"Shouldn't he technically be a two-time All-Star?" Bryant joked.

(Or maybe he wasn't joking.)

Because of the audience the Derby and the game commands, Ohtani's spectacle on this stage provides not just instant gratification but, perhaps, an example to the next generation of elite athletes who have a wild new standard to aspire to.

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman -- himself a two-way talent in high school before the Braves drafted him as a hitter -- can attest to the fact that his young son, Charlie, is watching Ohtani closely.

"I'm glad the door is open," said Freeman, "because look at the excitement he brings on the baseball field. Why wouldn't you want more of that?"

Of course, that doesn't mean that Ohtani's fellow All-Stars -- particularly those who have done the Derby before -- don't think he's nuts.

"In 2018, I did both the Home Run Derby, and I played [in the All-Star Game]," Freeman said. "On Home Run Derby day, I ate half a piece of chicken. That's all I had time to eat. Luckily, I lost in the first round. Then I got to my hotel room, sat on the ground, and my dad goes 'Whoa.' I said, 'Yeah, I'm exhausted.' Then you go out and play and don't have a day off and have to go right back in.

"So yeah, it's crazy. But it's so exciting."

Crazy. Exciting. And crazy exciting. Welcome to the Sho.