Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Aaron Donald helped win the Rams a Super Bowl and Joe Burrow got the Bengals to one. Steph Curry won another title and grabbed the NBA Finals MVP. Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson left the PGA and are headlining a controversial upstart golf league, one as management, the other on the course.
Russell Wilson got moved, Aaron Rodgers decided to stay put and play, and big-name wide receivers prompted deals with contract demands. Some big American Winter Olympians disappointed, golf majors delivered, Coach K retired, Kevin Durant demanded a new team, and NIL, the transfer portal, and conference moves gave college football big out-of-season topics.
All these stories filled up our websites and talk shows so far in 2022. All of them have done well to shove aside the most impressive person in sports, who somehow continues to fail to capture the United States’ sporting imagination to the degree he deserves despite being the most singular athlete of our time — and in some time.
How is Shohei Ohtani not bigger? And how is the biggest story about the double whammy play of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitcher/ DH that he isn’t a bigger story?
Before Ohtani, Babe Ruth was the last player to throw 100 innings and record 200 plate appearance in the same season.
For the Boston Red Sox. In 1919.
Ohtani emerged from Japan 99 years later to do it in 2018 and there was fanfare, for sure. But here we are five years later as he’s continued to be an excellent pitcher and hitter and we hardly hear about him. It’s as if what he’s doing is commonplace when it most certainly is not.
The person who did before him, Ruth, was the first superstar in sports.
For a century, it wasn’t only unimaginable for there to be a two-way baseball player, it was unimaginable that a pitcher in baseball – in the National League starting in 1973 – be expected to hit even marginally well.
They were preoccupied with their craft and it was considered a victory if, with two outs in an inning, the No. 8 hitter could find a way to get on base, so the pitcher hitting ninth could make the final out of the inning, setting up the leadoff hitter for the next time around.
Now a pitcher – Ohtani – doesn’t only help himself out, but he helps everybody out.
I’m here to give him a headline, as I could not be more impressed and consider him perhaps the most under-hyped athlete of my 53-year lifetime. That is truly hard to accomplish the way sports media has grown in the last few decades.
Yes, yes, I know all the reasons he’s not popular, some more legitimate than others.
He’s soft-spoken. He’s from Japan. Those close to the Angels say because he’s does not consider himself fluent in English, he prefers a translator. He doesn’t seek attention. He’s playing a sport fewer people are interested in. He’s on a bad team that’s never gone to the playoffs with him and one of the game’s other best offensive players — Mike Trout. While he’s technically in a big market, he’s on a second-fiddle team actually well outside of Los Angeles, a clear Dodgers town.
I say never mind all that.
If you’re big enough, good enough, doing something unprecedented enough, it overcomes all that.
Or it certainly should.
Every start should be an event — team be damned, time zone be damned, quiet personality be damned.
No, you don’t have to watch a baseball game. But you should be watching the highlights and sharing them with your kids. You should be telling them about the craziness that’s unfolding; craziness that has not been seen by anyone in your family since their great-grandparents or further back. And those games would have been played during the day in a league of 16 teams — none further West than the two in St. Louis when the one in Brooklyn was called the Robins.
“Baseball was born here, and I personally want baseball to be the most popular sport in the United States,” Ohtani told GQ. “So if I can contribute in any way to help that, I’m more than open to it.”
Who’s taking him up on this? Here’s a 28-year-old, 6-foot-4, 205-pound billboard for modern sporting accomplishment unlike anything in any sport. He was the unanimous AL MVP last year.
“We’ve had our eye on Shohei for a while now,” MLB executive Barbara McHugh told CNBC in July, of 2021. “It’s been a lot of planning and building on his momentum.”
There was apparently an “It’s Sho-Time campaign” released by the league around then. But as a regular watcher of a non-Ohtani team — beyond the cover of this season’s edition of “MLB The Show” — I’ve not seen anything from MLB propping him up. So I’ve missed it or they’ve failed in scope.
Thank God they were keeping an eye on him though, those clever baseball people!
Still, it’s a push beyond baseball that’s required.
In an April story titled “Ohtani’s becoming a global brand icon,” MLB.com reported he’s got partnerships with more than 15 companies, including Hugo Boss, Asics, Fanatics, Panini, Topps and Oakley.
They can say he’s one, but how come he doesn’t feel like one?
Nothing’s big enough, nothing to promote him has hit well enough, and nobody is doing it right.
Last year he was the American League’s starting pitcher and led off for them in the All-Star Game, literally the night after he was in the Home Run Derby. There was a lot of hype then. And it faded even as he posted an MVP season.
He was elected to the All-Star Game game for both positions again and will be featured at Dodgers Stadium on Tuesday night.
You may read that and think, “that’s not for me.”
But this guy is for everybody. Wake up and don’t miss him. Make him water-cooler talk or text group chatter or whatever your equivalent is. We pride ourselves on creating and sustaining a sporting meritocracy. Let’s give him the status he deserves.