Suddenly, in what is supposed to be the baseball offseason when Giancarlo Stanton is so very much in season, Stanton isn't the most interesting man in the world -- and I do mean world -- because Shohei Ohtani of the Nippon-Ham Fighters is right now. It means that after one of the most wonderful baseball seasons in memory, and one of the most wonderful World Series, the offseason just got a lot better.
We spend so much time talking about the beauty of a sport in which the Most Valuable Player in the American League, Jose Altuve, is listed at 5-foot-6, and the second-most valuable player, Aaron Judge, is 6-foot-7 and built like Yankee Stadium. We have talked plenty about Stanton, who is just an inch shorter than Judge, and who chased 60 home runs until his last at-bat of the 2017 season.
But now here comes something completely different in Ohtani, who is 6-foot-4 and doesn't turn 24 until next July, and can both hit and pitch; who might be on his way to the Yankees, 98 years after a guy named Babe Ruth came to New York after pitching and hitting for the Red Sox, and 100 years (99 being Judge's number, of course) after Ruth played 95 games in the field for the Sox and hit 11 home runs, in the same season when he also won 13 games as a starting pitcher.
No one is suggesting that this guy, Ohtani, is that guy. There was only one Babe Ruth the way there was only one Elvis. But if you love baseball, how can you not want to see Ohtani come over from Japan and try to be both a pitcher and a hitter, and maybe even be some kind of gateway to other young players becoming two-way threats?
"He can hit it real far and throw it real hard," Bobby Valentine was saying on Tuesday morning. "Not a terrible combination."
Valentine once managed in Japan, for the Chiba Lotte Marines, around his time as a manager in this country with the Rangers and Mets and Red Sox. So Valentine is someone who knows about managing in a World Series (2000 Mets), and what baseball is like on the other side of the world. He said he has not yet seen Ohtani play in person, but he is just back from a trip to Japan, and says that all of his old friends from Japanese baseball are talking about Ohtani.
"They think that somebody is absolutely going to sign him to do both," Valentine said. "But everybody who's seen him, whether as scouts or coaches or broadcasters, are convinced he's the real deal. Now some of them question whether he can do both over here. They do question that, and think he is more suited to be a hitter than a pitcher, because at this point in his career, they think his control isn't great. But then in the next breath, they tell you that his stuff is off the charts."
Then Valentine said:
"I can tell you this, as young as he is, they talk about this kid like he's a legend. I know it got covered over here a little bit at the time, but he hit a ball last year that punctured the roof at the Tokyo Dome. Now that place has been around longer than Ohtani has been alive. And a lot of baseball has been played there, by Japanese players and American players and All-Star teams. As far as I know, only a handful of guys have even scraped that roof. And he hit one through it!
"Everybody's got stories about how he hit balls over this billboard, or that billboard. Like I said, legendary stuff. So, yeah, they're talking about him over there the way they're talking about him over here."
After the season when Judge did things like break television screens in the deepest part of Yankee Stadium during batting practice, and hit some home runs in games that tried to scrape the bottom of the sky, now we really are talking about Shohei Ohtani blowing a hole in the roof of the Tokyo Dome. And getting Yankee fans, who once loved Hideki Matsui the way they did, to imagine what it might be like to have Judge and Ohtani and Gary Sanchez, who is no slouch himself when it comes to hitting home runs, in the same batting order. Not in the House That (George Herman) Ruth Built. Just the one that George Steinbrenner Built.
There are still all the stories right now about postings and the MLB Players Association, so it is still no sure thing that Ohtani will play in the big leagues. But it is impossible to believe that smart people will not work this out with a baseball kid from the Ham Fighters who really has become the most interesting man in the world.
No one knows for sure where he will end up. Maybe it is true that the Yankees do have a secret weapon with him in Hideki Matsui, who was known as Godzilla when the Yankees brought him over from Japan and he became one of the most popular Yankees of his time. Finally, on the night when the Yankees won their last World Series, in October of 2009 against the Phillies, it was Matsui who was the star of Yankee Stadium and the star of everything, having the night of his baseball life, at least his baseball life in America. The Yankees won that game, 7-3. Matsui knocked in six of those runs, went 3-for-4 with a home run off Pedro Martinez, and became the first Japanese player ever to win the MVP Award for our World Series.
And this past season, when the Yankees honored Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium, when so many of his former teammates returned to the Stadium, the only person cheered louder at the Stadium than Jeter was Hideki Matsui.
Matsui was once the home run player from Japan whom most fans on this side of the Pacific Ocean had only heard about. Matsui was a different kind of baseball curiosity in those days, then he came over here and delivered the way he did for a long time, was as winning a ballplayer and as professional a ballplayer as anybody with whom he played. Now the curiosity out of Japanese baseball, the player everybody wants to see, is a home run hitter who pitches.
Hits it far, throws it hard, hits it hard enough to put a hole in the roof. He's not even here yet. Don't know if he'll be a legend here. Don't know if he really can pitch and hit in the big leagues. Just know this: Can't wait to find out. Ohtani. Oh, baby.