I came to witness.
After so many years in the sports writing business, it’s rare to see something you haven’t seen before. I obviously missed Babe Ruth trying to be a pitcher and hitter 100 years ago, and Roy Hobbs in “The Natural” was, after all, a movie character played by Robert Redford.
But Wednesday, in a sparsely attended Comerica Park, on a humid, windy night that threatened storms as the sunlight died, here was the new talk of baseball, jogging to the mound, something fresh indeed, a double threat the way the Babe once was.
Here was a 6-foot-4 Japanese baseball player, a pitcher and a hitter, broad at the shoulder, narrow at the hip, with a child’s lineless face, a thick, dark mane, pointy sideburns as much hair as whiskers, and a peaceful expression that could just as easily be staring at a lake as at an opposing batter.
Here was The Sho-Hey kid, Shohei Ohtani, all of 23 years old and two months into the majors and already in possession of many eye-blinking accomplishments, including: three home runs and two wins as a hitter and starting pitcher in a single eight-game stretch; a .291 batting average; a 4-1 pitching record; one hit allowed in 44 at-bats against his split-fingered fastball; and a personal press corps that follows him from city to city and reports back to his homeland.
A California TV reporter told me Wednesday how exciting the atmosphere was in L.A. whenever Ohtani played — as a hitter or a pitcher.
So I came to see for myself.
He looked like a veteran
Here is what I observed: a smooth delivery from the mound, unremarkable from afar, but impressive when you get close. Ohtani, in his first year of American baseball, was mixing pitches like a veteran Wednesday night, utilizing his fastball, split-fingered fastball, slider and curve ball with enough variation to leave a number of Tiger batters flailing badly. He didn’t race back to the safety of his heat (something young pitchers often do) whenever he faced a challenge. He showed no signs of young emotion.
It’s true, Ohtani did not start the game with a bang. His first pitch was a ball. He walked his first batter. He struck out his third, walked his fourth, and gave up an RBI single to Niko Goodrum before escaping the inning,
But his next several frames showed what the hype was about, and he left more than one Tiger looking like, as a famous song once described, a horse that never left the post.
Nicholas Castellanos found a groove against him and sliced two doubles. The rest of the Tigers, in the first five innings, managed one hit, three walks, five strikeouts and many easy fly outs. From the second inning on, he threw 42 strikes and 18 balls.
It rained twice during Ohtani’s performance, interrupting the game for 23 minutes and 43 minutes, the latter ending the kid’s night.
So I came to witness, but, as testimonies go, this was pretty incomplete. Still, if Ohtani’s debut here wasn’t enough to make you marvel, it was enough to make you wonder: why is he so unique?
Are there more players like Ohtani?
Throughout our major sports, we produce outliers whom we celebrate. Double dippers. Defensive backs who return kicks. Running backs who can play quarterback. Six-foot-nine-inch point guards. Tall goalies.
Yet we almost never develop pitchers as hitters. Not in the major leagues. You know how long it’s been since the last guy to start as pitcher and position player in his first 10 big league games? Almost 100 years.
So the question Ohtani begs is simple: is there an American version of him out there right now, chewing gum or opening his high school locker? And if so, will he ever be allowed to walk his red, white and blue cleats down Ohtani’s blazed trail?
“There have been kids,” Al Avila told me earlier in the day in a radio interview, kids who got drafted with promising big-time hitting and pitching skills. But by the time they reach the minor league level, they’ve been told, as Avila pointed out, “they need to concentrate on one or the other.”
That’s how we do it in the age of specialization. Baseball was once putting your best nine players on the field. Now it’s situational: who hits lefties better than righties, who’s had success against a certain pitcher, or in a certain park? How many innings last time out? How much rest? Any game that uses relievers based on pitch counts seems too analytic to accept a dual-threat hitter and starting pitcher. Not to mention the specialized muscle development/training/rehab/offseason focus for the two different jobs.
Which is why Ohtani will prove so interesting. I’m hoping he succeeds, because I like to see athletes transcend their sport, not the other way around. And if he becomes the worldwide phenom that so many are predicting, the sheer imitation factor will likely produce more.
For now, he came to Detroit, he pitched, and it rained. It wasn’t the witnessing the fans hoped for, not the one I hoped for, but given what may happen with this polite, young man who skips over the white lines as he leaves the field, we’ll all be glad one day to say we were there.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.