It was a brisk December day on Long Island. I was sitting on my couch, curled up in a blanket and consuming every bit of information I could find on a Japanese phenom named Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani was reportedly finished meeting with his seven finalists and a decision was on the horizon.
I scanned the web pages and came across a headline on MLB Trade Rumors that caused my heart to drop: “Shohei Ohtani to sign with the Los Angeles Angels.”
I nearly threw my laptop halfway across the room in frustration. My housemate cautiously glanced over at me, but decided it was better to not engage.
I don’t get angry very often. Even some who know me well have never seen me truly enraged. But in that moment, I was more mad than I had ever been as a sports fan. A player who could have transformed the Mariners’ fates chose to play for a division rival? What we once dreamed of was instead theirs, and the M’s would have to be reminded of it nearly 20 times a year.
So I sat there, blank-faced and silent for a long time. Like many, I had psyched myself up to believe that Ohtani was a perfect fit for Seattle. How could he choose anywhere else? The team is on the west coast, has strong ties to Japan, could allow him to DH, and is in the perfect state of competitiveness for his needs.
Instead, he went to the Angels. “Anywhere but the Angels, and I’ll be OK with it,” I had told my friends at school, many of whom had tuned out the whole ordeal after Ohtani spurned the Yankees early in the process.
The decision shocked the world, and had some ramifications for the M’s. Instead the team would have to battle against the sport’s most enticing athlete. His demise would assist in Seattle’s success.
And so far, he’s delivered. Ohtani has been everything that even his most optimistic fans had dreamed of. And surprisingly, I’ve found myself in a slim minority of Mariners fans who are thrilled with his performance. Somehow, I had learned to enjoy it.
What could be more fun than a player who can not only throw 100 miles per hour, but also locate his pitches exactly where he wants to? A man who has a splitter that seems to manipulate gravity. A player who can not only hit 400-foot home runs, but can also contort his body to slice a ball that nearly came in on his hands and nail it into the gap for a stand-up triple.
When it comes down to it, I’m a baseball fan and a Mariners fan by extension of that. I love this sport. To me, Ohtani represents something incredibly special. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent. We might never see a player again in our lifetime who can do what he does. To refuse to accept how unbelievable he is because he plays for a rival would mean I’d be choosing to suffer while everyone else in the world enjoyed it.
But the even more fascinating thing about him is that if he succeeds, he could change the sport. Two-way players are becoming more common in MLB drafts, but teams have been reluctant to allow these players to try actually doing both. If Ohtani is successful with his experiment, organizations might be more willing to give their talented prospects the green light. Hunter Greene with the Reds and Brendan McKay with the Rays could be next in a wave of two-way players. To me, that’s thrilling. And Ohtani’s failure might mean teams will never try such an experiment again.
Some Mariners fans insist that rooting for Ohtani is impossible considering he plays for a rival, but I disagree. Ohtani having a successful career isn’t mutually exclusive with the M’s winning a World Series during his tenure with the Angels. It might make a marginal impact on the M’s chances, but the two teams will largely succeed or fail outside of what Ohtani produces. That’s true in baseball where it might not be true in other sports. If Ohtani flops or gets hurt, the M’s will still have to win games on their own. That will always be true, and 146 of the M’s games this season will be completely absent of Ohtani.
Then comes the fact that the media hyped up M’s fans into believing that he was snatched out of their hands. In reality, Ohtani was no more “almost a Mariner” than he was almost a Ranger, a Cub, or even a Yankee. The Mariners could have had Mike Trout in 2009, Francisco Lindor or George Springer in 2011, Corey Seager in 2012, or Aaron Judge in 2013. A lot of teams could have had those players. In this case, the M’s didn’t have the choice. Ohtani did.
Perhaps that makes it worse. He personally turned down Seattle and all it had to offer. But is it so much “turning down” something as much as it is choosing a favorite? When you go to lunch and you place your order, you aren’t saying all of the other options are terrible. You’re not saying that you wouldn’t be caught dead eating a BLT just because you ordered a turkey club.
Ohtani didn’t dictate the charade of a process that led to his signing. Major League Baseball created the terms and Ohtani simply obeyed them. Because of the way the decision was set up and covered, fans of 29 teams feel personally attacked by the Japanese superstar. All he did was choose what he thought was best for him. If you want to blame someone for making you feel like Ohtani was stolen from the Mariners, blame MLB or media members who called the M’s the “favorites” to sign him. Don’t pin it on the kid.
Some say his decision was already made before the process started; Ohtani wanted to be an Angel before he met with anyone. If true, people view the whole charade as a deceptive lie. But that might be where the cultural differences come in. He may have viewed hearing everyone’s pitches as respectful, where in America we see it as wasting everyone’s valuable time. He’s 23 years old and it’s impossible to expect him to understand everything about business in this country.
I’m not going to shame Ohtani for choosing the organization that made him feel most at home. Who knows what I would have done in his shoes? From everything that I’ve heard about Ohtani, he’s nothing but good-natured, hard-working, and intelligent. Far be it for me to root against him for a decision that he made in good faith, believing that it was best for his life and career.
I’m a Mariners fan and a Shohei Ohtani fan. Until the two collide head-on, I’ll continue to admire the fact that he can do what nobody thought a baseball player was capable of doing.
There will be thousands of Mariners fans who will continue to agonize over his every strikeout and groan after each home run. But I’m going to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle and dream of what his success could mean for the sport I love.