Last week, as angels Assistant pitching coach Dom Chiti strolled through the weight room at Fenway Park, he noticed that the team’s two-way star and reigning American League MVP was doing one of the things he did. he often did: practice. Shohei Ohtani grimaced as he tried to lift a silver rubber ball about a foot in diameter and throw it against the wall. Suddenly he turned around. “Heads up!” Ohtani called, sending the ball to his coach.
The lob nearly knocked over Chiti, 63, who braced himself for what he expected to be a 20-pound projectile… only to realize the ball was filled with air. Ohtani, 27, burst out laughing.
“He hurt me,” says Chiti. There’s not much shame in that, though. Chiti was one of three victims that week of the prank, which Ohtani says is her favorite. Turns out Ohtani was doing another one of the things he often does: having fun.
“He’s always messing around,” says left-hander Patrick Sandoval. “Very innocent type stuff. It’s funny.”
Ohtani rarely speaks to the media – he declined through the team to be interviewed one-on-one for this story – so some elements of his personality have been slow to sink into the public consciousness. But in recent weeks the cameras have caught it in dramatic fashion collapse on the chest of first baseman Benji Gil; jokingly cooking a ball to a fence behind which a White socks fan looked at him; and, after going 3 for 24 to start the season, pretending to perform CPR on his bat in the dugout. Paying fans are beginning to learn what his teammates already know: Ohtani, who can throw the ball at 100 mph and hit it 400 feet, is perhaps the most talented player in the history of the sport. He’s also quite funny.
“He can come across as so focused because he’s as disciplined as anyone I’ve ever met,” said general manager Perry Minasian. “His work ethic and routine is crazy, [down to] the minute, but there are times when he can relax and joke around, and it’s quite entertaining to watch.
When Minasian took over ahead of the 2021 season, he made two significant changes to Ohtani’s routine. First, his usage: In Japan, where Ohtani was born and played until 2018, he pitched once a week and played outfield three or four times a week, never the day before or after a start. He never had more than 382 plate appearances or made more than 24 starts in a season. The Angels tried to reflect that, tracking everything from how much sleep he got to how often he returned to first base during takedown attempts in an attempt to protect him. After three good but not exceptional seasons, Ohtani has rebuilt his body. He adjusted his diet based on a series of blood tests. He went to Driveline, a private facility that has helped pitchers including Clayton Kershaw streamline their mechanics and increase their speed. Ohtani finally felt healthy, he said. So, last spring, Minasian and Maddon decided that Ohtani would dictate his own availability. In the end, that meant almost every day.
The other change was to Ohtani’s training schedule. Because he was both a pitcher and a batter, he never was either. In spring training, he skipped pitching field practice to get to batting practice in time. He would play wrestling with his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, rather than with the other pitchers. All of this caused discomfort and sometimes a hint of jealousy among his teammates. Los Angeles has therefore adjusted its schedule so that it can participate fully in both areas.
As his teammates got to know him better, they were surprised by what they learned.
“At first I was very [taken aback]says outfielder Brandon Marsh. “I was like, ‘Whoa, okay, Sho, you have a funny side.'”
A convincing poker face helps sell some of his pranks. It also hides his personality from strangers. “He’s a lot more outgoing than I thought he was,” said second baseman Tyler Wade, who joined the Angels on Yankees last November.
Although Ohtani’s English has improved over the past five years, he still relies on Mizuhara for nuance. But the language barrier is much less imposing than it seems, and besides, many gags do not require any interpretation: the farce of the ball in weightlessness, for example, or its exaggerated reactions. (His surprised, wide-eyed, open-mouthed face is a favorite.) He likes to sneak up behind his teammates in the dugout, pat them on their far shoulder, and act innocent when they turn around. He plays clash royale with his teammates and gloats outrageously when he wins. (“I am the king!” he would remind them for days.) And his laughter – often directed at himself – is childish and contagious.
“He laughs a lot,” Maddon says.
When Ohtani swears, he does so mostly in English, for the benefit of his teammates. He often appears with a well-timed expletive, although no one wants to be specific about which ones he uses. “Everyone learns swear words first, right?” said third baseman Anthony Rendon.
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Some of the jokes are only made funny by the joy Ohtani takes in them. After throwing a bullpen session, he waits until Sandoval isn’t careful, then returns the ball to him and laughs when he drops it. Ohtani also enjoys watching Sandoval until he notices him and then repeating everything he says. Before a game last week, Sandoval turned back to his locker to find Ohtani staring at him.
“Are you serious?” said Sandoval.
“Are you serious?” Ohtani mimicked.
“You are a tyrant! said Sandoval. They both chuckled.
When his teammates are discussing an opposing pitcher, Ohtani sometimes comes up with an incorrect scouting report. “Good two-seams,” he’ll say of a guy who only throws four-seams, leaving his teammates to stop and rack their brains before they realize he’s kidding.
All of Ohtani’s USA teammates have noticed how much of a spotlight he is. Some two dozen Japanese journalists cover him as their full-time beater, and since he only addresses the media after pitching, they often have to turn to his teammates for content. During this first spring training, they sometimes answered questions about what Ohtani ate for breakfast that day.
“He deserves all the recognition he gets, but it’s a lot of attention, and I think he just likes being one of the clubhouse boys,” reliever Mike Mayers said.
Many angels are famous in Japan because they keep appearing in Ohtani’s photos; he recently informed Wade that the second baseman has many admirers overseas and now only addresses him as “ikemen”, which means “sexy guy”. Ohtani distributes chocolate among the piles of fan mail he receives every day. “I like it a lot,” said reliever Archie Bradley, who set up next to him in Anaheim. “He gives me a lot of candy.”
Ohtani goes out of his way to be a good teammate, people around him say. Typically, veteran hitters, for example, pick a convenient time to use the batting cage, and rookies step aside. You might expect that to be doubly true for a veteran hitter who also needs to find the time to pitch a bullpen session.
“It’s Shohei Ohtani, but when people come into the cage, he’s very cordial; he lets them play first,” says assistant batting coach John Mallee. “He does a lot of things that I’ve seen veterans not really do – when it’s their time, it’s their time. He makes sure his teammates are taken care of before him, and that’s a really unique thing for a superstar.
Ohtani understands how good he is, and after four years of sharing the field with Mike Trout, possibly the best player who ever lived, and still doesn’t make the playoffs, he understands how badly he needs that his teammates are good too.
“I really like the team,” he said. told reporters in September to Mizuhara. “I love the fans. I love the team atmosphere. But more than that, I want to win. That’s the most important thing for me. So, I’ll leave it at that.
Minasian says he spoke to Ohtani afterwards and said he also wanted to win. And the Angels have made progress this year: At 21-12, they’re half a game behind the Astros in the AL West and lead the sport in runs scored, with 164.
Ohtani is doing his best to increase that number. A few weeks ago he hammered a line drive into the gap for a brace. He came to score and threw himself dramatically on the bench.
“Ugh!” he moaned.
“What?” asked his teammates, worried.
Ohtani sighed, waited for a beat, and said, with perfect comedic timing, “Homer pitch.”
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