How Shohei Ohtani Made Baseball Fun Again

“Last two: a fly-out and a groundout.”

Very specific, I say.

He laughs. “I try to get as real as I can.”

There are the extraordinary feats, the defiance of limits, the eruption of firsts and not-since’s and never-have-we-seen’s. There is the two-way potency, the dual mastery of the once sacred specializations, the fresh blueprint for how future stars might bring their singular assemblage of talents to bear on the game. Those are the ways Shohei Ohtani might break baseball by making it new. Or rather by making it new by making it old again.

By reintroducing the possibility of a bona fide two-way superstar. By reminding us what it was like when ballplayers were kings. When their every movement electrified a live crowd, stopped people in the street to huddle around a television or a radio, or prompted opposing fans to boo an intentional walk, as they did all last summer when they were deprived of the potential for fireworks. These are, in other words, the ways in which Shohei Ohtani is making baseball 1951 again—for fans old enough to have heard with their own ears the Shot Heard Round the World (or at least read about it in DeLillo). Or 1978 again. Or, indeed, 1993, for this writer, and those my age, who no doubt believed that Ken Griffey Jr. was more powerful than the president.

More than new or old, though, he is really just helping this country get a taste of what baseball feels like every day in Japan, for fans for whom baseball never lost its juice. He is imbuing baseball with an opportunity to go both forward and backward at the same time, in ways that remind us—and showcase—all there is to love and light up for. Shohei inspires this sentiment by being the best there is. But he inspires it, too, by simply loving baseball like I didn’t know anyone still did. Or at least like how I figured only a child could.

When I’d asked Shohei how he might be different if he’d come to the U.S. five years earlier than he did, he focused on the baseball outcome: He might not even have made it in the majors. But I also meant emotionally. Maturity-wise. How different would he be?

“Honestly, even now, I feel like I haven’t really changed much since I was 18. There wasn’t a huge difference in those five years”—living in the dorms in Japan, just playing ball.

That is: when that pure engagement with the game could be preserved by living simply and single-mindedly. Then, as now. An apartment. A ballpark. A Tesla. Some takeout.

As we glide up to the dock, he thanks Balelo for the boat tour, and says “Nice ride!” in English. When I suggest that he could get one for himself, he looks incredulous. “Too much expensive,” he says.

Before we go, I ask him to describe for me, in his own words, what a yakyu shonen is.

“Yakyu shonen is a kid who loves baseball,” he says. “Who’s just purely enjoying baseball. When I was a yakyu shonen, I probably had the most fun playing up to this day, because I was just starting to learn a new sport, and it was just fun—generally fun. And all the practices were usually on the weekend, so I was waiting all week for the weekend to hurry up and come so I could practice and play some ball.”

I ask if yakyu shonen could be used to describe someone at the professional level too. Someone who, say, plays with unadulterated joy. Who smiles—and even occasionally apologizes to his opponent—when he does something incredible. Who treats every game like it’s the weekend after a long week of school.

“I mean, it literally means ‘baseball boy,’ ” he says, smiling. “But, sure, I guess you could refer to a professional that way too.”

Daniel Riley is a GQ correspondent.

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2022 issue with the title “Game Changer.”


Watch Now:

Behind the Scenes with Shohei Ohtani


PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Photographs by Eli Russell Linnetz
Styled by Jon Tietz
Grooming by Hee Soo Kwon using Dior Backstage Face & Body Foundation
Tailoring by Yelena Travkina
Produced by ERL Studios
Photographed at Los Angeles Angels Angel Stadium


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