It may have been as simple as one thing. Of all the major league teams with which he dealt, Shohei Otani felt the closest bond-in-the-making with the Angels.
“While there has been much speculation about what would drive Shohei’s decision, what mattered to him most wasn’t market size, time zone, or league but that he felt a true bond with the Angels,” his agent Nez Balelo said in a formal statement. “He sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals. More than ever, I believe this is not only a special talent but a man of special character, and like everyone else I’m excited to see him in major league baseball.”
Not half as excited as the Angels and their fans, who’ve been wondering for several years when, not whether, something and someone even half as exciting as Mike Trout would come their way.
Come to think of it, Trout himself made sure Otani would feel the “true bond” more secured on Saturday. With Otani set up for a Face Chat chat with Trout, Trout took a little time from his wedding day preparation to sell Otani on the respectfulness Angel fans deploy toward their players. It was the least Trout could do after Otani’s introductory remarks included congratulations to the groom-to-be.
Assuring Otani they’ll show him plenty of respect and love but still respect his privacy when they bump into him out and about around Anaheim. Several reports from people privy to the Trout chat say Otani was left speechless with delight that the face of the Angels reached out to him.
The Angels presented Otani formally at a large press conference outside the home plate entrances to Angel Stadium. “This is the first time I’ve been talking in front of such a big crowd that I actually kind of forgot what I was going to say,” he cracked through his translator. “You guys are making me all nervous.”
Manager Mike Scioscia pronounced Otani would indeed play on both sides of the ball—sort of. He’ll pitch in rotation and be a designated hitter otherwise here and there. General manager Billy Eppler hammered home the point. They could worry about managing Albert Pujols’s DH time and thus C.J. Cron’s first base time later.
They’ve got a mere four months to figure that out. It won’t be easy, considering the heel and foot problems that have eroded Pujols almost since the day he joined the Angels, but bank on the Angels figuring something out. While they do, bank on them keeping in mind that Otani’s 2017 in Japan was compromised by ankle and hamstring injuries that kept him to five starts on the mound and 231 plate appearances.
They didn’t hurt him as a pitcher; he still posted a .942 OPS for those plate appearances. But the Angels aren’t going to be stupid. They can’t afford to be.
Otani showed himself blessed with a charming sense of humour between the usual presser formalities and boilerplate, too. Shouldered neatly into an Angels jersey with number 17, he said he really wanted number 27 but some other guy beat him to it. For the record, it’s the guy who took a few minutes out from his wedding prep to welcome him aboard.
It’s not that number 17 is a jinx number by any means. The last most notable Angel to wear it was outfielder Darin Erstad—who just so happened to catch the final out of the 2002 World Series to seal the Angels’ seven-game triumph, and who was a useful player overall, until crossing the line between hard nosed and bull headed once too often eroded his skills and his body.
Other Angel players got in on the fun over one or another social media outlet. Cron tweeted that his new teammate “should crash Trout’s wedding. DM me for details bro!”
Most important, though, was what Otani might do for the Angels in the American League West. They’ve been to only one postseason, and a round-one exit at that, since Trout arose to become their franchise face and the Show’s best all-around player. (He was all but cruising toward a third Most Valuable Player award until he suffered a torn thumb ligament on a sliding play, sending him on his first ever trip to the disabled list.)
Maybe the Angels won’t be ready to win a division title again just yet, but maybe Otani married to Trout gives them a shot at serious contention for 2018 and a real shot at the division conquest in 2019. What a thrill that wouldn’t be for the Rangers and the Mariners, both of whom played in the Otani sweepstakes but couldn’t quite seal the deal the way the Angels did.
“I look forward to becoming part of the Angel family,” Otani said. “I look forward to playing in front of all you great Angel fans. And hopefully we can bring a championship back to Anaheim.”
Otani already has the fans on his side. No questions asked he’s the most exuberant of the passel of Japanese stars who’ve come to ply their trade in the United States since the early 1990s. His comportment at the Angels’ introductory presser was enough to make you wonder if he’d bring a bunch of people inside the stadium and choose up sides for a pickup game, just to break himself in a bit.
Hideo Nomo often seemed uneasy by the “Nomomania” that sprang up when he joined the Dodgers. Hideki Irabu was distinctly uncomfortable with the hype surrounding him after he made his way to the Yankees. Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki accommodated politely in Seattle, with Ichiro sending Hall of Famer Randy Johnson a telegram promising not to bring shame (Ichiro’s word) to the uniform number (51) they now shared.
Otani cracks jokes, flashes a smile bright enough to have melted the iceberg before it clobbered the Titanic, sends wedding congratulations, jokes about his uniform number (he first thought of number 11, since his dog was born 11 November, until he realised the Angels retired it long ago, for original shortstop star Jim Fregosi), and invites fans to give him a nickname.
This is a kid who didn’t want to wait three more years to bag bigger bonus bucks because he was itching to play in the States and, as it turned out, couldn’t wait to slip himself into an Angel uniform.
In spring 2016, Bryce Harper decided publicly that it was high time to make baseball fun again. Hall of Famer Goose Gossage played the get-off-my-lawn card, but half of baseball seemingly told Gossage to stay off their lawns and quit spoiling their fun. I hope Harper got a load of Otani Saturday. Otani looks like he’s going to be just what Harper had in mind.
All he has to do is forget about being the next Babe Ruth (he respects Ruth’s legacy but that’s as far as he goes with the comparisons) and focus on being the first Shohei Otani. Maybe they’ll call him the Samurai of Swat; maybe they’ll call him the Shobino; maybe they’ll just call him one helluva pitcher and boy, can he dial nine when he hits.
This ought to be good: the 2018 schedule has the Angels playing three April games with the Giants. What’ll be more fun—the games themselves, or Madison Bumgarner challenging Otani to a few batting practise contests?