TEMPE, Ariz. – If it were all that difficult they’d call it pitching practice and not batting practice, as the entire exercise is designed for impact and carry and, really, self-esteem. It can be, and most often is, a lonely endeavor – two men and a bucket of balls, or two men, a bucket of balls and a machine – at a time and place where progress on the best days is measured in slices of inches. Batting practice is dreary by design. It is repetitive. It occurs in the perfect hitting vacuum. The advances – endurance, muscle memory, mechanics – are they to come, are all but invisible.
Getting excited about batting practice is silly. Batting practice is the coolly arched eyebrow before the heartache. It is the ball that dies at the track, sometimes literally.
So on a Wednesday afternoon at Tempe Diablo Stadium, cool and dark and spilling lug nut-sized rain drops, Shohei Ohtani participated in his first batting practice. And it was phenomenal. Absolutely gorgeous. Thirty-some left-handed swings of easy grace, torque and contact, of easy hiss and thwack and oh boy. A 23-year-old’s elasticity. A 210-pounder’s power. A 6-foot-4 man’s leverage. Dumb old batting practice vs. some guy who’s going to pitch and get DH reps for the Los Angeles Angels this year, and some guy stole the whole dang thing. It was beautiful beyond the seven home runs – someone was counting, as it turned out – for the swing’s range and breadth, from the moment his hands left their place beside his left ear to the time they finished high over his right shoulder. And, yes, of course, sometimes it all goes to crap when the big fellas start in with the sliders and cutters, otherwise known as pitching practice, what we know as baseball games. And if it does, it does and we’ll all find out together, but for now, in mid-February, against a stiff breeze, this was the coolly arched eyebrow. This was the ball that wouldn’t be knocked down.
And here’s the thing about that: Ohtani hated his batting practice. Or he made it sound that way, anyway. Seems in Japan players take batting practice against pitchers standing on the mound, while here, where old fellas heave the ball in two- and three-piece deliveries across scarred shoulders and decayed elbows, they move the whole apparatus about 10 feet closer to the plate.
Hideki Kuriyama, Ohtani’s manager with the Nippon-Ham Fighters and a visitor to Angels camp Wednesday, had mentioned the difference during Ohtani’s batting practice, and then afterward Ohtani admitted, “I wasn’t really used to today’s style. I wasn’t able to perform to my fullest,” and if this isn’t the least significant issue of Ohtani’s first days then the Angels and Ohtani will be well ahead of the game.
Still, this is the transition from there to here, all the little parts that will get Ohtani from there to a regular place in the starting rotation and a semi-regular place in the lineup. From his dorm in Japan to a temporary three-bedroom apartment, of which, he said with maybe a smile, “I feel kind of lonely by myself in such a big place.” From familiarity to uncertainty and back to familiarity. From all that he was, and it was a lot, to all he is expected to be, which is more. At 23 years old.
On the first official day of camp, droves of reporters followed Ohtani from station to station (He will throw from a mound for the first time Thursday). Fans stood several deep at the chain-link fences. His old manager came by. He posed for a photo with one of the team’s new sponsors, a gentleman representing a Japanese technology company. He shook owner Arte Moreno’s hand and offered a subtle bow. He made small talk with his locker-mate, a left-handed reliever named Jose Alvarez, if there can be small talk when it is processed through a translator. Then he took batting practice, and it was splendid, and batting practice isn’t supposed to be splendid, and he thought it wasn’t near good enough.
“Just simply very excited,” he said, “to step my feet on the ground.”
This was to be Ohtani Day. It is not likely to end, however. Every day will be Ohtani Day. In deference to that, perhaps, Ohtani was less engaging Wednesday than he was two months ago, when the Angels introduced him on the plaza in front of their Anaheim ballpark. Through a press conference that went 30 minutes, he kept his answers to a sentence or two. He said he was happy to have met some of his teammates, that they have been kind and welcoming. Asked about facing his idol, Yu Darvish, later in spring, either as a pitcher or hitter, he said, “First of all I need to win a spot and get some at-bats. That’s what I’m focused on right now.” A perfect answer. Asked, wryly, if on Valentine’s Day he had indulged himself with a piece of chocolate (hey, they’re not all cross-examinations), he said he had not. There was plenty of day left, however.
Mike Scioscia, the Angels manager, had earlier gotten on a tangent about hitting, but really about the path to becoming a great hitter in a pitching practice league. The subject was Ohtani, as it will be for a while, but didn’t have to be. And, really, it didn’t even have to be about hitting. But it did describe what is coming for Ohtani, both sides of the ball, both sides of the sea.
“It’s just understanding the process,” Scioscia had said. “If you’re up there trying to get a hit, you’re going to miss a lot of steps that lead to getting a hit.”
An hour later, waving a silver-tipped bat on an uncomfortably bleak day, Ohtani found himself somewhere in that process. The pitcher was too close. The language was all wrong. The ball was just a little bit different. His manager for years was nearby, but in street clothes. Everyone around him watched a little too closely.
And he raked. In batting practice. Which means nothing. Until it does. Hell, he looked good doing it.
“I never felt like I accomplished my dream yet,” Ohtani said. “I don’t know when that’s going to come. I’m still in the middle. I’m trying to accomplish that dream. When that time comes, then that’s when I’ll find out.”
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