Keeping up with Shohei Ohtani

SHOHEI OHTANI IS both text and subtext, the brightest light in the firmament and the candle flicker on the wall. He is right there in front of us, obvious in all his brilliance, yet slightly out of reach, his present as clear as his future is uncertain.

This current edition of "Season of Ohtani" feels like the height of something, like a great artist's signature piece or a writer's seminal work. Every oversaturated box score speaks to something previously unattainable, an unrepeatable (for now) shift of the game's tectonics. It feels as if it could be the end of something, or at least a gateway to something completely different.

Ohtani's pending free agency hovers above the Angels' season, following them everywhere. When manager Phil Nevin is asked whether he believes his team can compete with the Astros and Rangers in the American League West, he is being asked whether the Angels can keep Ohtani. When general manager Perry Minasian is asked how many games per month his team needs to win to remain in contention, or whether there is a magical number of losses that will denote non-contention, he is being asked whether the Angels can keep Ohtani. When Angels players are asked whether they feel momentum flowing or ebbing or remaining the same, they are being asked whether the Angels can keep Ohtani.

The only one who is not asked whether the Angels can keep Ohtani is Ohtani.

I set out to contextualize this moment, whatever it is now and whatever it might become: Ohtani on the brink of free agency, and the Angels desperately trying to play well enough to win him over. The idea was to capture the experience beginning with one Ohtani start on the mound and finishing with the next; in this case, seven otherwise random games in June, three against the Astros, three against the Cubs and one against the Mariners. The Angels won five of seven, the last five in a row. Ohtani was 11-of-28 with two homers and six RBIs, and he pitched 11 innings over two starts, striking out 12 and allowing seven earned runs. It was a decent but understated start to what would become one of the best months by an individual player in baseball history.

To watch Ohtani over an extended period of time is to be subsumed into his world. There is always a small, revelatory moment, far removed from the home runs and the 102 mph fastballs, that feels unique to Ohtani. In the sixth inning of Ohtani's June 2 start against the Astros, Kyle Tucker rolled over on a pitch and tapped it to first, about 40 feet from home plate and 6 feet off the foul line. Ohtani ran over and picked it up and stood in the baseline, facing Tucker, who had stopped as Ohtani tried to decide the most respectful way to record the out. They stared at each other for a second or two before Tucker extended his right arm and presented it to Ohtani, as if to say, "Here, this is how this ends."

I found myself constantly looking at my scorecard to see when he would come to bat again, and watching him and translator/friend/coach/consigliere Ippei Mizuhara gesticulate over a tablet in the dugout, and tracking the time it takes him to regroup after an at-bat and before he heads to the mound. (The umpires, understanding the moment, have granted him some between-inning leniency.) Every at-bat was accompanied by the collective lean of 30,000 people, suddenly engaged. There were times I wished -- as I'm sure Nevin does -- that Ohtani could expand his oeuvre and occupy two spots in the batting order at once.

Ohtani's excellence is such a feature of the landscape that it can be difficult to believe it wasn't always like this. During his first spring training with the Angels, in March 2018, I sat in the stands in Tempe, Arizona, watching him bounce fastballs and hang breaking balls against the Tijuana Toros, a Mexican League team in town for a game so far off the radar they played it in the morning and didn't sell tickets. Ohtani was terrible -- wild, rhythmless, confused. He threw very few strikes, and the ones he threw got hit hard. I listened as people told me the American baseballs were too slick and the mounds too hard, and I listened as his high school coach, Hiroshi Sasaki, told me that Ohtani needed two years of struggle to reach his potential. "Right now," Sasaki said, "Shohei is crouched. He must go down before he rises up." I nodded and wrote it down, not sure I believed it.

THE PROBLEM WITH writing about Ohtani is that in between the writing and the reading he does something that surpasses everything else. While writing this, I watched him: beat the White Sox by hitting two home runs while striking out 10 and giving up just one run in 6⅓ innings; and hit home runs at what has to be called an alarming rate, including a 493-footer that, even through the television, sounded like a gunshot in the woods. He hit 15 home runs in June and amassed a 286 OPS+ (league average: 100). He also pitched 30⅓ innings with a 3.26 ERA. It has reached the point where it's a surprise whenever he doesn't do something ridiculous.

A random Sunday afternoon, two outs in the ninth, nobody on, Angels up a couple of runs, Ohtani working on an 0-for-3 afternoon, and he cracks one 454 feet; a Monday night in Texas, 459 into the second deck in left-center, to a place other left-handed hitters don't even know exists; two nights later, 453 to the same spot.

(And the ancillary problem of assessing the Angels' playoff chances vis-à-vis Ohtani's future is the franchise's inability to get out of its own way. Even the best of times -- winning eight of nine from early to mid-June to grab ahold of a theoretical wild-card spot -- are just a grim reminder of what's ahead: Mike Trout's broken hamate bone; Anthony Rendon's long-running series of injuries; Ohtani's cracked fingernail/blister combo that ended his subpar July 4 start and kept him off the mound at the All-Star Game. They win eight of nine, they lose nine of 10. Such are the Angels.)

Discerning the meaning of something demands some sort of comparison, or at least a relevant reference point. Ohtani, having driven past -- and then backed over -- the Babe Ruth comparisons, has left us to our own devices. Academics who study prodigies talk about the constant push for more and the compulsion to move on from mastering one task to pursuing another. It wouldn't come as much of a surprise if we learned Ohtani was going to spend an offseason working on switch-hitting or hitting .400 or throwing a knuckleball.

"Every day he wakes up thinking about how he can be the best baseball player on the planet," Nevin says. "Every movement he makes is toward that purpose. Not just at the field but how he eats, how much he sleeps, how he organizes his day. He does whatever it takes to get there."

Nevin is asked about Ohtani so often he long ago ran out of descriptions, but he consciously takes a few minutes every day to appreciate what he's experiencing. "It feels like every day I come into the press room and someone says, 'Sho set this record today. Nobody's ever done this, or that,'" he says. "I've found I need to step back and not take it for granted."

BY NOW IT'S safe to assume our prying eyes will never be allowed access to Ohtani's world, no matter how boring and rote we presume it to be. He is content to narcotize the masses with uniquely unilluminating sentences presented with unrelenting politeness.

His teammates look upon him with a mixture of awe and curiosity. ("When a guy does what he does," pitcher Tucker Davidson says, "it's OK to be in awe.") Strangely, the guys who share a clubhouse with Ohtani don't know a lot more about him than the rest of us. They discuss what might happen at the trade deadline or where he might be next year, but reliever Aaron Loup says, "We haven't asked him about it. Definitely not. But it's a topic. You can't avoid it." They don't know his daily routine -- "It's a great question," reliever Chris Devenski says, "I'd like to know his secrets, too" -- despite marveling at its results. Nevin goes on and on about Ohtani's discipline and preparation, but when I asked him whether he knows the day-to-day specifics of how Ohtani compartmentalizes his two crafts, Nevin says, "I don't. I don't know what he's doing every day at the ballpark. I leave that to him."

But who Ohtani is has always been secondary to what he does, and what he does is so cosmic in a baseball sense -- and who he is, from all available evidence, so comparatively boring -- that it's probably enough. Openness is the enemy of myth, and nobody ever crafted a legend without mystery.

He has strained the limits of language. Historic and unprecedented, just to get those two out of the way early. But how many ways can disbelief be expressed? How many superlatives strung together does it take to equal utter meaninglessness?

Every season Ohtani grows bigger, his shoulders now as wide as the batter's box, as if in response to the expectations. He has grown more demonstrative, occasionally expressing disagreement with umpires' calls and routinely celebrating his achievements more openly. His purchase of the celebratory kabuto helmet he and his teammates wear while prancing through the dugout after home runs would have been unthinkable even four years ago.

And maybe some measure of distance is not just preferable but necessary. It's hard to imagine the chaos his life would become with just the merest hint of controversy. He must be left alone to do what cannot be done.

"He doesn't share too much, to be honest with you," Loup says. "When it comes to the work side and preparation, he definitely has his own program. I'm sure the weight he's got on his shoulders is beyond everyone else's."

A Japanese journalist standing near the third-base dugout in Anaheim filming Ohtani's center-field plyo-ball workout three hours before a game tells me, "He's a megastar. We've grown numb to not getting anything from him. We've accepted it." Mizuhara stands two steps behind Ohtani with a radar gun. Several Japanese journalists film while others take notes. They all wear the same languid looks; never before has someone so active been responsible for so much lethargy. The appetite for Ohtani content in Japan is prodigious; video of the plyo-ball routine shot from 200 feet away will be seen throughout the country. The beast must be fed; the beast is insatiable.

"None of us can imagine what it's like for him," says Angels rookie shortstop Zach Neto. "You go out and see all the media watching and filming him just throwing plyo balls against the wall. Like, every time. It's hard to imagine being in that kind of spotlight."

Ohtani's career is historic in so many ways, and soon that will include the amount of wild conjecture that will accompany his free agency this offseason. With the trade deadline at the end of July, every rumor is already retailed to the masses. Another Japanese reporter holds out his phone and translates a social media message detailing how the New York Mets have enlisted fans to spread disinformation about Ohtani as a means of decreasing interest from other MLB teams, thereby increasing the Mets' chances of signing him. It's preposterous, of course, but since it's 2023 and since it's Ohtani, the reporter asks around to see whether anybody thinks it could be true.

AT 3:45 P.M., ROUGHLY three hours before Ohtani is to pitch against the Astros in Minute Maid Park on June 2, he and Mizuhara sit at a four-top in the players' lounge, looking at their phones. (In the interest of pith-helmeted investigative journalism, I can report that Ohtani is partial to lime-flavored sparkling water.) A few minutes before they sat down, the Angels' lineup was posted on the wall of the clubhouse. Ohtani, pitching and leading off. ("Still crazy to see it," pitcher Griffin Canning says. "Warm up in the pen, run to the dugout, throw on a helmet and face Framber Valdez. No big deal.") Thirty-five minutes later, Ohtani and Mizuhara are still in the same seats, still looking at their phones, proving that even the busiest baseball player in the world has a lot of downtime. At 4:23, catcher Chad Wallach sits across from Ohtani to discuss the game plan against the Astros.

"He's pretty involved," Wallach says. "He definitely knows every hitter. He's pretty confident and dialed into what he's doing, so I'm just there to suggest a pitch every once in a while."

The task is not small. Ohtani throws eight pitches: a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a sweeper, a "shorter" slider, a curveball, a cutter, a split-finger and something Ohtani calls a "running split" -- a split that has more depth to it. There are eight buttons on his PitchCom, and he reaches under his arm and relays pitch type with the first push, location with the second. The pitch clock gives him 15 seconds to choose and throw a pitch with nobody on base, so there is no time to go through the suggesting and shaking of four pitches, much less eight.

"I'm amazed at what he can make happen off those eight pitches," says injured catcher Logan O'Hoppe. "He'll say, 'I'm going to throw this pitch, but I want a little more depth to it.' And then he'll throw it and it'll have more depth to it. It's the same pitch, but it's also not. He's got eight pitches, but he can make it 16 if he wants."

What you see today might not be what you see next start. What you see in the second inning might not be what you see in the sixth. Eight pitches and all their variants, adding to the mystery. This granular level of detail is necessary only because pitch selection came up as an issue for Ohtani in both of his starts over the course of the seven games. Against Houston, he threw consecutive sweepers to Yordan Alvarez, the first one a harmless ball and the second one a lifeless thing that Alvarez drove over the wall in right-center.

There is an awkward self-consciousness every pitcher feels when he has just allowed a home run on the road. Fireworks go off, the fans roar and the pitcher, as a sort of penance, is forced to stand out there while the hitter soaks it all in with a relaxing stroll around the bases. Most pitchers ask the umpire for a new ball immediately, as if having one in your glove negates the one in the bleachers. Ohtani nodded for a new ball before Alvarez hit first base, and before Alvarez hit third he had already reached under his left armpit to tell Wallach what he wanted to throw to the next hitter.

After the start, an Ohtani loss, Nevin said, "There are some pitch selection things we need to talk about. A guy like Alvarez seeing two pitches like that ... if you put them in the right spot, then yeah. But I'm not saying he should have thrown a fastball, and I'm not saying he threw the wrong pitch."

In the clubhouse, everyone waited for Ohtani. Mizuhara walked out of an adjacent video room, Ohtani still inside, and looked at the assembled group with a look of surprise. He quickly ducked back into the room and emerged with Ohtani, wearing a black New Balance T-shirt, his right arm wrapped in ice, sweat rolling off his forehead and into his eyes. Questions were asked and translated, and Ohtani earnestly gave different versions of the same anodyne answers we've heard for six years.

"I think he understands exactly what the question is before it's translated," Davidson says. "But I think it gives him a chance to think, 'OK, here's how I want to say this.' He doesn't like to give off any of his secrets."

Mizuhara, 39, is an employee of the Angels, but that seems like something done strictly for accounting purposes. He's been with Ohtani since he arrived in the United States. He is Ohtani's ever-present plus-one, usually following two to three strides behind him and almost always carrying something. He carries Ohtani's luggage into the clubhouse on getaway days; he carries Ohtani's iPad for him to study hitters and pitchers. He carries Ohtani's water jug, a comically large vessel designed to look like an office water cooler.

They drive to the ballpark together. They sit together at Ohtani's locker and in the players' lounge before and after games. They are apart only when Ohtani is on the mound or in the batter's box. Mizuhara runs Ohtani's pregame routine on the days he pitches and the bullpen sessions he throws the day before. He sits in the dugout with a tablet and confides with Ohtani on hitting and pitching between innings. When a new pitcher is called from the bullpen to face Ohtani, it is Mizuhara, not a hitting coach, who heads to the on-deck circle with the tablet to give Ohtani the rundown on the new guy's stuff. When Ohtani hit the first of two homers on the night he pitched against the White Sox, he didn't have time for the post-homer frivolity involving the samurai helmet, so he handed it to Mizuhara for the ceremonial tunnel run.

So: Do they ever get sick of each other?

"I wondered about it a lot, and I don't think they do," says first baseman Jared Walsh. "They've transcended friendship into brotherhood, truly. It sounds dumb, but it's true."

THE NEXT DAY in Houston, after grinding through 107 pitches the night before, Ohtani led off again and had four hits. He sent line drives like hornets all over the field: a single to center, a triple to center, a double to left, a single to right.

Long after the game ended, Astros manager Dusty Baker walked through the clubhouse toward his office shaking his head. "We thought he was gassed yesterday," he said. "And then he comes out today and gets four hits. I've never seen anything like him."

Baker's comments sparked a question that dogged me through the better part of a week: What is Ohtani's toughest day?

"I don't know what day is hardest," says Minasian, the Angels' GM. "He makes every day look easy."

Most of Ohtani's teammates reflexively said the day he pitches -- "Has to be, right?" Wallach asks -- but nobody has ever asked. A cynic might wonder: How hard can it be when he's hitting over .400 on those days?

"I would have to say the day after. Think of it this way: He's rotating his body this way," Walsh says as he mimics Ohtani's pitching motion, "and then he's swinging the bat and rotating 120 miles an hour the other way. So I would just assume the toll on the hips and the low back with as much torque as he puts on it -- you're going to feel that the next morning. But then again, I think he plays by a different set of rules than the rest of us."

I asked just about everybody: Nevin, several pitchers, two catchers, four infielders. "I would imagine it's the day after he throws all those pitches," Devenski says, while Loup says, "The day he pitches. One, to have the energy to do it. Two, to be prepared the way he prepares to perform on the mound and at the plate."

Finally, on the last day of the trip, I get the chance to ask Ohtani. He tilts his head a quarter-turn to the right and nods -- you get it, the nods always seem to say, and I get you -- the way he does when he's preparing an answer. He listens to Mizuhara's translation and says, "The biggest workload is obviously the day I pitch, but the hardest day depends on how my body responds after my start. It can be the next day or even the second day after the start."

As Ohtani ended the interview with English-speaking reporters and turned to the Japanese contingent, Mizuhara stood off to the side and told me, with a hint of confidentiality, "The next day after his start he still has adrenaline. It's the second day when he's most sore." Mizuhara's insight cracked the door ever so slightly; in this hermetically sealed world, it felt momentous.

THE ANGELS WON the last game of the four-game series against the Astros to avoid a sweep. Ohtani hit an RBI double in the eighth inning to break a tie and push the Angels to a 2-1 win. It felt like a big win, for the team and for Ohtani and for the team's chances to keep Ohtani, since every game is a referendum on the Angels' worthiness as an offseason suitor. The clubhouse music played loud enough to bounce ribs.

As the music throbbed, a Japanese-speaking Angels media relations representative is asked whether Ohtani will answer a few questions. He generally speaks only after games he pitches, but there was news -- the hit that won the game, plus Nevin's postgame announcement that Ohtani's next start would be pushed back a day. She says she will take the request to Mizuhara, who will take it to Ohtani in the players' lounge to see whether he will answer a few questions in a couple of languages.

If Trout had hit a game-winning double, he would stand at his locker and answer questions until one side or the other grew bored. If Patrick Sandoval's start had been pushed back a day, he would have called everyone over and chatted for 15 minutes. If Luis Rengifo had hit a game-winning double, a Spanish-speaking translator would be standing with him at his locker waiting for the reporters' arrival.

The request is relayed to Mizuhara, who stands with Ohtani at his locker. The two speak briefly while more than a dozen reporters stand idly, about 20 feet away. Abruptly, Ohtani puts his head down and walks past everyone to the safety of the players' lounge, Mizuhara two steps behind.

Many locker room interactions are awkward; this one is weird. Other Angels players, packing up for the flight home, are looking around wondering why the reporters are hanging around staring at their phones and their shoes. Did something bad happen?

After what seems like forever but is probably less than 10 minutes -- longer than Ohtani ever speaks after he pitches -- the negotiations are apparently complete. The Angels PR staffer approaches solemnly, with news:

"I have a quote," she says.

First to the Japanese media, she repeats Othani's words. The reporters start to write, then stop and look up, confused.

She turns to the American media.

"I am glad I got the hit," she says, "and I'm glad we won the game."

WHEN NEVIN WAS coaching third base last season before taking over for Joe Maddon, Ohtani asked him to stop giving him signs with a 3-0 count. Ohtani felt teams were pitching him differently on 3-0 depending on the sign; Nevin doesn't know whether Ohtani believed the signs were being picked or whether the mere act of Ohtani looking to third and Nevin relaying a sign was triggering a certain response. He didn't ask; he just complied.

"He said he knew when to hit and when not to," Nevin says, shrugging.

A few at-bats later, Ohtani ran the count to 3-0, and Nevin turned and walked away from the third-base coaching box, determined not to make any motion that might be construed as a sign. Ohtani smoked a double off the wall in right-center -- Nevin is looking out from the Angels' dugout like he can still see it -- and stared directly at Nevin when he pulled into second base.

Ohtani looked at Nevin, pointed both index fingers and laughed.

"See?" he asked.

Everything must be examined. He consults sleep experts and nutrition experts. During his MLB-mandated media session the day before the All-Star Game, he revealed that sleep, that most important and boring human need, is the key to his success. He conserves his energy at the ballpark by prioritizing efficiency over repetition. "He understands now that 40 good swings is better than 100 swings," Walsh says. "He knows when he's right it doesn't take much." Depending on how he feels, he'll throw his between-start bullpen -- it's really a comprehensive throwing workout that concludes with him on the bullpen mound -- either one or two days before a start.

In his second June start, on a Friday night at home against the Mariners, Ohtani once again threw consecutive sweepers to a left-handed hitter, this time Jarred Kelenic, who hit a two-run first-inning homer. Once again, it was attributed to Ohtani's perfectionism; he threw a bad sweeper in both cases, to Alvarez and Kelenic, then tried to right his wrong by coming back with the exact same pitch, out to prove he could throw it better. Both times the second one was worse: flabby and flat and catching too much of the plate.

After the game -- a game in which Ohtani homered and the Angels won, by the way -- Nevin was asked whether the problems with pitch selection might cause him and the coaches to rethink allowing Ohtani complete control. Should the catcher, or maybe the minds in the dugout, have a say in what he throws?

"We'd only consider something like that if he came to us with it," Nevin said.

Ohtani is such a transcendent talent, and so obsessive about his craft(s), that the Angels are rightfully leery of offering even the slightest criticism. Their hopes for keeping him hinge on his comfort level, and his belief that the team has the means and the motive to become a consistent contender. Ohtani is the rare athlete who can play by his own rules and remain universally liked in a baseball clubhouse, perhaps the most insular and caustic place in sports.

"Nobody has done this, and he's earned that trust," Nevin says. "He's the last guy I worry about being prepared for a game."

Minasian is sitting on the bench in the Angels' dugout, answering the same Ohtani and Ohtani-adjacent questions. In his third season as the Angels' GM, Minasian inherited Ohtani and all the rules of engagement. He has maintained, publicly and privately, an air of confidence regarding the team's ability to sign Ohtani after this season.

"We love this player, and we think he's someone who fits," Minasian says. "We hope he's here for a long time, and right now we're just trying to win games."

Through 5½ years in Anaheim, Ohtani has been a bargain. He not only makes significantly less than his talent suggests, but his presence fills Anaheim Stadium with a dizzying number of Japanese advertisements. There are signs for Yakult probiotic drink, Bandai Namco video games, Funai/Yamada electronics. The water jug and towels in the dugouts bear the logo of Pocari Sweat, a Japanese version of Gatorade. A video spot for Churu -- "Japan's No. 1 cat treat" -- runs after the top of the fifth inning at every Angels home game.

It's all directly attributable to Ohtani, of course, but he is not in any conventional sense the face of the franchise. Trout is the guy taking batting practice on the field and signing baseballs for Little Leaguers behind home plate. Ohtani's public offerings are on the field. Will his next employer -- or the Angels -- agree to the same conditions?

"Let's say someone gives him $600 million," I say to Minasian.

"Seven hundred," he interrupts, laughing. "Eight hundred." He throws his hands up. Pick a number, any number. Nothing is too outrageous at the moment; Ohtani is a $400 million hitter and a $300 million pitcher, or is it the other way around?

"Play money at this point," Minasian says. But let's take the Mets, I say, trying to play through. They're desperate to win and compete with the Yankees for everything -- championships, attention, star power, supremacy in the market. Wouldn't they expect a more public version of Ohtani?

"You'd have to ask them," Minasian says.

The inference is clear: You don't have to ask the Angels. They've already answered the question.

ON A TUESDAY night in Anaheim, against the Cubs, the vision sprang to life. Ohtani and Trout were on base five times. Ohtani homered. In the fifth, the Cubs brought in left-handed reliever Brandon Hughes to face Ohtani, who walked to set up a two-out, two-run single by Trout that forever altered the game's chemistry. A parade of Cubs relievers bounced in from the bullpen with big ideas ready to be deflated. This -- this right here, on June 6, 2023 -- is what it looks like when it works.

Ohtani has done what Trout did before him: provide a glossy cover to a sloppily plotted book. The Angels have made the postseason once in Trout's time with the team, a first-round loss in 2014. Things will change, and change quickly, because change is the Angels' specialty, but this win will be part of a stretch when the Angels win eight of nine to go eight games over .500. And on this day, a columnist at The Seattle Times wrote about the Mariners' unexpectedly poor season under the headline, "Are the Mariners ruining any chance to sign Shohei Ohtani?" In San Francisco, a columnist outlined his version of what the Giants, suddenly viable contenders, need to do to stay in the running to sign Ohtani.

Against this backdrop -- every game a referendum -- Minasian set about the job of reupholstering the roster. "Everyone understands it takes more than two great players to win," he says. His draft picks, including Neto and relievers Ben Joyce and Sam Bachman, were making an impact. Mike Moustakas and Eduardo Escobar were brought in through trades, moves that served for the moment to quiet any talk of a pending Ohtani deal. With their audience clearly identified, they desperately tried to get better, to prove they're serious, to make the playoffs, to answer the many iterations of the one question that will dictate everything else.

Can you keep Ohtani?

For his part, Ohtani seems happy to remain lost in the many tasks that await him. He seems comfortable in his self-contained world. His talent continues to keep its promise, regardless of what swirls around him. But what about the next two weeks, and then the next two months? That's the thing about Ohtani: Aside from all the first-evers and never-befores and what's-nexts, he seems singularly equipped to ignore the noise of the moment, and the noise to come.