Why MLB needs to strike now on Shohei Ohtani's stardom

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

DETROIT – It was a Wednesday night. There was rain in the forecast all but assuring delays (there were two relatively brief ones). The Detroit Tigers aren’t much of a contender this season (just 25-30 so far after defeating the Los Angeles Angels, 6-1).

Still, Babe Ruth was in town, on the hill no less. Or at least that’s who Shohei Ohtani is trying to become, the 21st century Babe who can both hit and pitch. No one else in Major League Baseball has pulled this off since Ruth, who was a rookie in 1914.

Ohtani is a rookie now, batting .291 with six homers this season. As a pitcher, he’s 4-1 with an ERA down to 3.18, after delivering five innings of one-run ball here before being pulled due to the second rain delay. Once he left, the Angels collapsed.

So, yes, there are always excuses why attendance wasn’t great, but maybe it shouldn’t be unrealistic to expect more than just 19,494 tickets to be sold (with far fewer fans actually showing up) at Comerica Park to witness this guy.

There were maybe 12,000 in the building – plus one unfortunate Canadian Goose – despite the get-in price on StubHub hitting just $11 before the game.

This is the curse of Major League Baseball and this is the challenge for Major League Baseball, all in the form of a 23-year-old Japanese Babe Ruth wanna-be who should be one of the biggest things in sports but isn’t. At least not yet.

Talents who can even attempt this come along, well, about once a century. Since it’s a fairly good bet Ohtani will never actually have the career of Babe Ruth, it’s all more the reason to strike and strike now.

Simply put, MLB needs to figure out how to make Ohtani’s arrival in any city buzz-worthy, can’t-miss action. Ohtani on the mound has to excite the masses, draw them to the stadium, motivate the imaginations.

It’s been the sport’s struggle of late, building stars. Mike Trout was here too, of course. It didn’t matter. A metro region of 4.3 million shrugged. Across baseball, attendance is down about 2,000 fans from last season. The game has become too regional, surging or dying based on the win-loss record in individual cities.

The Japanese Babe Ruth, Shohei Ohtani, pitched in Detroit Wednesday night in front of roughly 12,000 fans. (AP)
The Japanese Babe Ruth, Shohei Ohtani, pitched in Detroit Wednesday night in front of roughly 12,000 fans. (AP)

The NBA Finals start Thursday and that league can churn out superstars seemingly at will. This series between Cleveland and Golden State will feature a slew of players so famous they only need a single name – LeBron, Steph, Klay, Draymond … or two initials in the case of Kevin Durant.

Different sport, sure. The Finals, not a regular season game in May. Veterans and not a rookie who doesn’t speak English, of course.

Still.

Baseball was once America’s pastime and watching Ohtani pitch, it’s understandable why. He was mesmerizing on Wednesday, old-school mastery in the modern world.

His four-seam fastball hit 101.1 mph, the highest recorded by a starting pitcher this season. His bending curve came in at as low as 70.6 mph. If that wasn’t enough, the slider and splitter buckled knees and blew up swing planes. The splitter is particularly nasty. There was no telling what was coming next.

Shohei put on a show, a performance that was special because, by his standards, it wasn’t even that special. The Tigers touched him for hits and drew walks and challenged him. Ohtani was just better. He threw 55 strikes in his 83 pitches. He got out of jams. He struck out five of the 21 he faced.

The fact he can also hit adds to the allure. He’s clubbed a 449-foot bomb. He’s knocked in 20 runs on just 103 at bats in just 37 games. His slugging percentage (.553) trails only Trout on the Angels.

Yes, there are natural limitations to his marketing potential. The lack of English is one. The fact that he is reserved in comments to the Japanese media is another.

That’s part of the allure though. He isn’t looking to be anything more than a teammate. When he was in Japan – with the Nippon Ham Fighters, no less – he lived in the team dorm despite a salary of $2.5 million. Since when was humility not something to sell?

And then there is just the historic absurdity of it all.

Earlier this year when Ohtani won a start and then hit a homer as a designated hitter the next day, he accomplished something not done in MLB since 1921 … by Ruth. When he hit three homers and won two games in the Angels’ first 10 of the season, he accomplished something not done since Jim “Grunting” Shaw … in 1919.

Unfortunately, Ohtani can’t really hit and pitch on the same day. Maybe that would have added some juice to the night. If the Angels tried it, baseball rules would require them for forgo the designated hitter for the entire game, putting them at a decided disadvantage when Ohtani eventually gave way to relief pitchers.

Yes, baseball is loath to change anything, but it might be a rule worth revisiting. If the DH is itself an unnatural creation designed to create excitement, then what’s wrong with a wrinkle to the rule that is designed to create excitement?

Ruth played here regularly, of course. Almost exactly 100 years ago (June 2, 1918), then with Boston, he started a game down the street at old Navin Field (later Briggs Stadium, later Tigers Stadium). He hit a homer, but also gave up four earned runs in a 4-3 loss.

Attendance wasn’t recorded that day, but it probably wasn’t too much. Navin held just 23,000 back then.

It would have been more than enough to handle the crowd that came out to see the new Ruth.

That can’t be good enough for MLB.

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