When Shohei Ohtani issued an invitation to all major league clubs in November to make a pitch for his services, there was one club that seemed positioned best to sign him: the Yankees.
The Yankees had been tracking him since he was in high school, and they signaled their interest last August by sending a contingent to Japan that included General Manager Brian Cashman. And with openings at designated hitter and in their pitching rotation, they were equipped to accommodate Ohtani’s desire to pitch and hit.
The Yankees could also point to a lengthy track record — most of it good — of integrating Japanese players into their organization, including stars like Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka. They could also offer Ohtani, 23, the chance to join a young team brimming with talent, a World Series contender, without having the burden of carrying the team by himself.
And while the Yankees chose not to make too much of the connection, they also had something that nobody else did: the Babe Ruth card.
When Ohtani turned down an overture from the Los Angeles Dodgers out of high school and chose to remain in Japan with the Nippon-Ham Fighters, it was with assurances that the team would help him develop as a pitcher and hitter. Ohtani’s goal was a lofty one: to become the first player in the Baseball Hall of Fame to be both since Ruth.
So when he was ready to make the leap to the United States, what better place to make his mark than in the House Adjacent to the One That Ruth Built?
Yet in their proposal, the Yankees included only a brief image of Ruth among their video clips, which featured Japanese subtitles. The presentation hit on familiar themes: the franchise’s championship pedigree, the Steinbrenner family’s commitment to winning and all that New York has to offer. There were detailed plans on how the Yankees would manage Ohtani’s role, an introduction to the training and coaching staff, and scouting reports in Japanese.
But the Yankees never got to make their case in person.
After all but two of the 30 clubs submitted proposals outlining their training philosophies, cultural immersion plans, market characteristics and ideas for how to use and develop Ohtani, the field of suitors was whittled to eight teams — none on the East Coast.
After face-to-face meetings with those clubs, Ohtani chose the Los Angeles Angels.
As Ohtani prepares to visit Yankee Stadium this weekend for the first time, he has justified the considerable hype, posting a .991 on-base-plus-slugging percentage — a few ticks better than Aaron Judge’s — with six home runs, while also going 4-1 with a 3.35 earned run average in seven starts. Ohtani’s O.P.S. and exit velocity as a hitter and his batting average against as a pitcher each rank among the top 20 in baseball.
The buzz surrounding his arrival in the Bronx might have been dampened Thursday with Angels Manager Mike Scioscia’s announcement that Ohtani will miss his scheduled start on Sunday — against Tanaka — to manage his innings. Still, Yankees fans will get a chance to see what might have been when the left-handed-hitting Ohtani steps to the plate as the team’s designated hitter.
If Yankees fans boo Ohtani with any vigor, the contempt surely will be contrived. It may be hard to muster sore feelings after the Yankees executed Plan B: trading for the reigning National League most valuable player, Giancarlo Stanton.
Yankees Manager Aaron Boone, who jokingly apologized when Ohtani crossed the Yankees off his list two days after Boone was hired, said he never put much thought into how Ohtani might have fit with his team.
“There’s so many things that play into somebody making a really important career and life decision,” Boone said on Wednesday. “If I’ve never been in his shoes, how can I even begin to empathize with whatever goes into his decision, not to mention a guy from Japan who we’re not even from the same culture? I don’t go down that road at all.”
The Yankees had a peek at Ohtani in April when they visited Anaheim. Ohtani belted a home run off Luis Severino in his first at-bat, but left after tweaking his ankle while running out a ground ball the next time up. He did not play the rest of the series.
What the Yankees also observed was the small army of Japanese reporters — about two dozen at the time — that followed Ohtani’s every move. It made it easier to understand why Ohtani, who lived in a dormitory during his professional career in Japan, chose to start his major league career in one of baseball’s sleepier markets.
“Imagine that in New York,” Severino said. “I couldn’t see myself coming straight from my country and going to New York with all that media, all that pressure. It would be hard. He’s the biggest thing since Babe Ruth.”
If Japanese players who arrive in the United States often look as if they have been developed with the same cookie cutter — the same drop-and-drive mechanics and splitters for the pitchers, the same inside-out, left-handed swing that Ichiro Suzuki popularized for the batters — they all have their own reasons for choosing where to land.
For Tanaka, it was the love — and the money ($155 million for seven years) — the Yankees showered on him. But he was also drawn to their history.
“I’d never played on a team where there was such rich tradition,” he said through an interpreter. “I wanted to play in an environment like that.”
Interestingly, if Ohtani — who preferred a quieter environment on the West Coast and partnering with Mike Trout — had chosen the Yankees, it might have worked fabulously well. That is in part because of how seamlessly Judge has found his footing.
“They’re a lot alike,” said Chris Martin, a relief pitcher with the Texas Rangers, who has been a teammate of both. Martin spent part of the 2015 season with Judge in Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and he spent the last two seasons as a teammate of Ohtani’s in Japan.
“Judge was a great fit for the Yankees: He’s a very confident guy with no ego,” Martin added. “Ohtani has the same demeanor. Nothing ever really gets to him.”
Martin acknowledged that in a media market the size of New York, it might have gotten “a little hairy” if Ohtani had been with the Yankees in spring training, when his struggles led to some people suggesting he should start the season in the minors. But he thought Ohtani was well prepared to find his place in a major league clubhouse.
“Ohtani is the perfect fit,” Martin said. “He can take jokes. He can play around. He doesn’t get sensitive. A lot of those guys, their personalities were a little more serious. With him, he’s always trying to have fun, especially with the foreign guys in Japan.”
He continued: “Sometimes over there, they treat you like you’re going to leave because not a lot of foreign guys stay very long. So they don’t want to get close to you because they know you’re going to leave. But he knew he was coming over here, so he wanted to see how we were and how it was going to be.”
A sign of Ohtani’s capacity for handling the American baseball experience came last month when San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija fired a 94 mile-per-hour fastball under Ohtani’s chin, sending him spinning out of the batter’s box.
Japanese pitchers are loath to throw far inside — particularly for the purpose of making a hitter uncomfortable — for fear of injury. It is especially so for a player of Ohtani’s stature, who bats with his pitching arm (though padded) exposed.
This pitch, then, was a welcome-to-the-big-leagues card.
Ohtani took a moment to compose himself, and when he returned to the plate, Samardzija came inside again with another fastball, this one on the inside edge of the plate. Ohtani laced the ball down the right-field line, inches foul.
Samardzija then delivered a sharp curveball at his shoe tops, but Ohtani, with an Ichiro-like swing, golfed it into center field for a single.
“He didn’t look like the moment was too big for him there,” Samardzija said afterward. “He looked like he belonged. As a veteran guy, you always want to see how they handle the first couple of at-bats, and he was aggressive. That usually tells you something.”
A week later, Severino learned something, too.
Severino has one of the best fastballs in baseball, and he delivered a 97 m.p.h. heater with his first pitch in precisely the spot he wanted — in on Ohtani’s hands. But Ohtani uncoiled and clubbed the ball high over the 18-foot wall in right.
Severino could only laugh.
“Next time, I’m not throwing inside anymore,” he said.
As Severino recounted that encounter this week, he mentioned watching Ohtani pitch recently on television. He marveled that a pitcher could hit so well and that a hitter could pitch so well, leaving the impression that the only thing Ohtani seems to be missing as he arrives in New York is pinstripes.