Shohei Ohtani’s ‘unicorn’ essence on full display in WBC

MIAMI – When the best baseball players in the world gathered these past two weeks for the World Baseball Classic, one thing stood out: There is only one two-way player in the entire tournament, and his name is Shohei Ohtani.

But as described by those who have seen his star power up close, Ohtani is much more than just a hitter and pitcher. The 28-year-old has mastered both trades in a way that no other player in baseball history has been able to accomplish.

“I think they’ve called him the unicorn and it’s very true,” said Team Mexico manager Benji Gil, whose familiarity with Ohtani runs deep from his role as the Los Angeles Angels’ pitching coach. Los Angeles. “I have all the respect in the world for Mike Trout and all the other great stars in the game of baseball, but he’s unique. He’s different.”

Ohtani is often compared to Babe Ruth, and in many ways the Great Bambino is the only real comparison to the Japanese star. Last year, Ohtani joined Ruth as the only two players in MLB history to record 10 home runs and 10 wins in the same season. That no player has even attempted this feat in 104 years is telling. Ohtani, of course, went well beyond those marks, finishing the 2022 season with 15 wins and 34 home runs and falling short of a second consecutive American League MVP only because of the historic campaign of Aaron Judge’s 62 home runs.

But Gil argued that the Ruth comparison doesn’t accurately highlight what Ohtani is doing. Ruth had exceptional success in both pitching and batting, comparable to Ohtani in terms of innings pitched and plate appearances, over just two seasons in 1918 and 1919. Ohtani has already shown that he can be successful as a player from two sides to the major league level for parts of three seasons, with no signs of stopping.

“He plays two different sports. He really does,” Gil said. “Because baseball pitcher and hitter are two different sports. It’s like Lawrence Taylor and Joe Montana back then. It’s basically Bo Jackson. You have to use two people to make an accurate comparison. And it does when the athletes are at the top of ranking. game, and he’s still one of the best on both sides of the ball. It’s incredible.”

Behind the scenes, the work Ohtani has to do just to take care of his body, in addition to attending team meetings for both pitchers and hitters, equates to his Angels teammates and staff members often don’t see him around. There will be days when Ohtani will be in the same ballpark as his team, but he’ll be too busy tending to his arm to socialize or even eat with company. Getting your body ready to pitch and hit is extremely demanding, and that’s just background production.

Shohei Ohtani smashes a home run against Australia

Shohei Ohtani smashes a home run against Australia

“I don’t think people understand what each part of their game takes from the other,” FOX Sports MLB analyst John Smoltz noted during Monday’s Mexico-Japan broadcast. “He needs to take BP [batting practice]he has to study the pitchers, and then he has to throw a bullpen, he has to prepare for one [start] once every six days. It’s a lot that most big leaguers don’t understand: Just doing one job is hard, try doing two.”

The never-ending work Ohtani puts in on a daily basis to stay healthy while maintaining peak performance is part of the reason players don’t try to be two-way players beyond high school and college ball.

“His regimen, what he has to do to prepare day in and day out, is probably more than anyone can imagine,” Gil said. “And on top of that, he gets on base and runs so fast that he’s a stolen base guy. He plays the game hard. Every ground ball he hits he runs as hard as he can. I mean, it’s amazing.”

Each of those talents has been on display throughout the WBC, and they’re a big reason why Japan has advanced to Tuesday’s championship game against Team USA (7 p.m. ET, FS1). Ohtani’s two pitching appearances resulted in two wins, 10 strikeouts and just five hits and two earned runs in 8 2/3 innings. At the plate, he’s slashing .450/.621/.800 with five extra-base hits, eight RBI, nine runs scored and nine walks over six games.

Shohei Ohtani and Japan vs. Team USA – WBC Championship Preview

Shohei Ohtani and Japan vs.  Team USA - WBC Championship Preview

Ben Verlander and Alex Curry bring you a preview of the World Baseball Classic title game between Japan and the USA.

With Japan trailing Mexico by three in the seventh of Monday’s semifinal, Ohtani’s leadoff single ignited a three-run rally. In the ninth, with Japan down to its final three outs and down by one run, Ohtani led off the frame with a double before scoring the tying run in his team’s impressive victory. As Japan’s entire dugout was cleared and rushed onto the field, their 6-foot-4 prodigy who now makes a living overseas could be seen amid the celebration, his unadulterated joy through of the group

Those who haven’t known Ohtani for a long time or have only met him once are equally impressed with his character. While his exploits on the field create a superstar identity, Ohtani is widely regarded as a down-to-earth, down-to-earth guy who treats friends and strangers alike with class and kindness. When it comes to his arm work and care, Ohtani is selfish in that he will be diligent and committed to taking care of his body, even if it means skipping out on events with his family and friends. But when he is not working, he is selfless in his humanity towards others.

In the hours leading up to Monday’s WBC semifinal, when Ohtani wasn’t taking batting practice, he was greeting and offering time to any reporter or fan who happened to be on the field trying to chat or see him. It’s not every day that players at the top of the game in their respective sports are so conscientious, let alone self-sacrificing, when it comes to giving up precious free time to do mundane interviews or sign autographs. Ohtani, however, remains honest.

Whether it’s his discipline, talent or concern for others, Ohtani exemplifies the meaning of the whole package.

Nootbaar talks about Japan’s thrilling semifinal win, playing with Ohtani

Nootbaar talks about Japan's thrilling semifinal win, playing with Ohtani

Lars Nootbaar breaks down Japan’s impressive comeback win against Mexico in the World Baseball Classic semifinals and discusses what Shohei Ohtani means to his team.

“It almost feels like I’m changing it, saying it’s once in a generation. It’s a lifetime,” Japan teammate and Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar said. “The first day I met him he was great, super nice guy. That was the first thing that jumped out at me, he was so welcoming. But then he threw a bullpen, he probably hit 100. [mph], and then entered the cage. He was hitting 118 balls [mph exit velocity], the first game hits two home runs. And then I look at him squatting 400, 500 pounds.

“There are things that you’re like, well, you can’t make that up. He’s coming off the squat and then he’s joking. It’s inhumane stuff. Obviously, I’ve never seen anything like it, and for him he’s done it. being as humble and genuine as a guy that he is, he, along with the experience in Japan, has also exceeded my expectations.”

Ohtani’s impact on the sport will be remembered for the rest of time. Players, coaches, trainers and fans will tell their grandkids what a phenomenon Ohtani is. But the best thing is that he still has a lot of games left to play.

“Not only is he the best baseball player in the world, he may be the best player in the world,” Gil said. “I mean, he might be the greatest athlete ever.”

Shohei Ohtani talks about playing in Japan and advancing to the WBC Finals

Shohei Ohtani talks about playing in Japan and advancing to the WBC Finals

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a reporter for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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