Will Shohei Ohtani be the next Babe Ruth? Mathew Mackie examines Ohtani’s stunning debut with the Los Angeles Angels as a double-threat hitter and pitcher.
There’s an oft-repeated soliloquy passed through the learned lips of a great mind, one that encapsulates the ambitious circular notion of baseball’s history. It’s called the baseball sound, an auditory reminder that history was made to be rewritten. The speaker, Buck O’Neil, was one of the great unknowns, a star of the Negro leagues, a place of proud skill, short on the detailed cartography that followed the white leagues, so, sadly, their performances are enshrined only in mostly forgotten anecdote. Buck experienced the first strings of the symphonic overture of Babe Ruth, a euphoric crack of both the bat and the audience. The climbing octaves within told him that the game had forever changed. Since that point, his life was measured by that odyssey, as he endeavored to hear that moment once more.
Sadly, he was cheated of his ambition. However, his thrill was recently mine, as I was privy to a moment that hadn’t been witnessed since the gaudy days of prohibition, hot jazz, Tommy guns, and the Bambino: the timbre of a pitcher that could hit as well as he could pitch. The sound of the obvious Buddy Riched my eardrum. Buck was on the money. It seems that the hype surrounding Shohei Otani is not only real, but entirely legitimate, as it seems the quiet kid from a quiet corner of Japan is possibly of the same things as that boisterous orphan from Baltimore was.
Now, admittedly, we’re only two weeks into The Sho, but we’ve already seen him clear the fence multiple times, and come excruciatingly close to no-hitting the Oakland Athletics. Which I’m glad he didn’t, as every baseball nut would have melted into a pile of excited goo. Just for reference, there have been a total of 296 no-hitters pitched in MLB history over a span of about 215,914 games. It’s hard not to crack open the exposed root of hyperbole and scoff the juice that flows within. Among the 19,214 professionals who have plied their trade, they’ve been split into two differing camps. Only two have the talent to be that man who does both. Otani and the Babe. Just a quick contemporary example, the greatest active pitcher who can hit is Madison Bumgarner, who has nailed 17 home runs in 487 opportunities. Shohei has 3 in 22.
However, numbers are alienating and meaningless. What truly matters is the palpable excitement, which one can measure in the macro nature of the documentation surrounding him. YouTube and Twitter alike are wallpapered with even the most meager of his achievements. This morning, I saw him do something stupid. He was picked off at first base. Which is not a highlight. At all. But god help me, I watched it all the same and cursed the apathetic umpires who called our god out. He was certainly out, but the point is irrelevant. The man demands your focus, primarily because he taps into the ambition all baseball fanciers possess. The ability to witness the unraveling of history.
In this instance, we’ve been hashtag blessed, as only recently did we register a statement that many generations of Chicagoans lived and died without hearing. The Cubs Win the World Series. Earlier in the new century, the Red Sox finally exorcised the Curse of the Bambino. With both antiquated losers now winners, we bully the heavy dusty tome to the dog-eared chapters of Babe Ruth. Yes, baseball is meaningless nonsense, but in that holds its infinite worth—it matters because it doesn’t matter. This kid can hit as well as a dead person we were cheated out of seeing. And that matters.
You see, baseball, is a rolling sea of unerring statistical accuracy beset by an undercurrent of undefinable factors. It’s a construct that is rigidly ruled, which also tolerates cheating. It both embraces and resists its history. Every year, they celebrate Jackie Robinson integrating the game, while still honoring those who racially abused him and his race. It’s a game that never lives, or never dies, as all great modern achievements are measured against the ghosts of the past. It is, as broadcaster Keith Olbermann put it, the only sport that goes forward and backwards.
We’re forever sharing overpriced food with the rotting ghouls of yore. It remains a moving, overpriced feast with bad food and tired music. But the fact that same tends to repeat is truly magic. It is, as Buck O’Neil stated, a matter of when.
With Shohei Otani, that when is now.
The man demands your focus, primarily because he taps into the ambition all baseball fanciers possess. The ability to witness the unraveling of history.
So, yes. Absolutely go and see The Sho, because he makes no sense. He’s a modern throwback to a bygone era. Ruth’s age was one of rank alcoholism, the press turning a blind eye to extra-marital whorehouse philandering (Hello to you, Babe), visceral racial division. The game was little more than a refuge for gamblers, criminals, and those who didn’t fit into polite society. You were paid nothing, had no rights, and you endured, or it was back to the mines with you, pal. To give you an indicator of the times, the team/bunkmate of legendarily insane pitcher Rube Waddell had it in his contract that Waddell wasn’t allowed to eat crackers in bed. It was, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in Gatsby: The faith of fifty million people, but it was more Jonestown than Nazareth.
Flashforward to the modern day and players control their own financial destiny, the division and specialization of labor is obvious, as is the infinitesimally macro nature of data analysis. The altar we pray at today is far different, it has cleaned up its act, and has strayed from the Kool-Aid.
In 1920, one pitcher mostly pitched all the innings in a game. A century later, specialized relief pitching is king, and seldom do starting pitchers go the full nine. In fact, many great marble and glass mansions have been built on the income gleaned from being a setup man to the closer who just faces left-handed batters. You have one job, and you do that as well as you possibly can do it. That’s how we do things around here.
Shohei Otani doesn’t really give two takoyaki balls to the commonly accepted sensibilities, which makes him both fucking hot, and a beau worthy of your attention. We’re unsure how long it will last, because we’re paranoid, foolish, and this is why we can’t have nice things, but the fact that he’s just carved the greatest debut in Major League history, builds our cautious belief in him. We purely deal in hyperbole. Undo our negative assumptions, senpai.
Everyone knows that he can’t keep up this pace, that there’s no way he can catch Babe’s mark of 714 home runs, 91 pitching wins, or his colossal 162 WAR. We know this because 98 years of history has forged our assumptions that the only thing that can do Babe Ruth things is Babe Ruth.
But that’s the beauty of it. What if he can?