TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) – Shohei Ohtani emerged from the clubhouse and tipped his cap to the swarm of Japanese countrymen capturing his every move, cameras clicking a mile a minute.
He offered that signature smile, something Angels manager Mike Scioscia noticed right away and appreciates as much as his new two-way star’s tremendous, “extraordinary” baseball talent.
As a small group of Japanese fans cheered and waved their flag, Ohtani walked to a back field at Tempe Diablo Stadium and got to work with the rest of the pitchers and catchers on a dreary Day 1 of spring training Wednesday. His supporters all-out sprinted up the bleachers and around left field to get there for another glimpse.
It quickly became far less glamorous for the down-to-earth Japanese phenomenon. As in, pretending to throw a ball before hustling to cover first base for a pitcher fielding practice drill – in the rain. He later took some cuts.
Ohtani said it was a shorter day than he’s used to back home.
“Baseball-wise on the field I’m going to be nothing different than what I was doing in Japan,” he said through translator and friend Ippei Mizuhara.
Ohtani’s first bullpen session was scheduled for Thursday and Scioscia said it would be this weekend or early next week before the lanky right-hander faces live hitters.
“There’s going to be a lot of resources we have to get him ready,” Scioscia said.
No, Scioscia doesn’t know yet where Ohtani will hit in the lineup on the days he bats. No, he won’t be playing the outfield. No, he won’t be sliding head-first (“obviously,” Scioscia noted).
Yes, Scioscia has seen him run. Yes, it’s quite impressive. Yes, he can absolutely steal bases if he has the chance.
“He’s a special athlete,” Scioscia said, noting there is a plan for when Ohtani will take pregame batting practice for Cactus League play. “He’s had great success playing in Japan, running the bases and doing things that a position player needs to do to try to get himself in position to score a run. He has great stride, he’s got tremendous speed. He can steal a base. There’s a lot of things he can do. I want him to play baseball. So, if he’s out there, he’s going to play baseball.”
Owner Arte Moreno and general manager Billy Eppler were on hand for the occasion. For a change, two-time AL MVP Mike Trout isn’t the biggest thing at Angels camp.
In a No. 17 red jersey, Ohtani sat at his locker in the clubhouse as old classics like Tears for Fears’ “Shout” and “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins blared from the speaker right next to him. He said he appreciates that “everyone has been very welcoming” – and he plans to work on his sense of humor this spring.
“I hope he hits 30 homers and punches out 180 guys this year,” fellow pitcher Garrett Richards said. “He seems like a great guy so far but I’m looking forward to getting to know him a little bit more. We haven’t seen anything like it. Pretty amazing.”
Ohtani already appears relatively settled in, standing and removing his hat to say his hellos in the clubhouse while balancing two phones. He already has bonded with slugger Albert Pujols and gotten to know Trout, who reached out before Ohtani chose to join Los Angeles.
“I’ve never felt that pressure everyone’s talking about around me,” Ohtani said.
Scioscia isn’t overly concerned about Ohtani handling all the attention and fanfare as a 23-year-old rookie with enormous expectations. Mizuhara spent the past five years working with Ohtani while he was on the Nippon Ham-Fighters.
“You have an extraordinary athlete that there’s a lot of focus on and just seeing him in the clubhouse and seeing him in some of the meetings we’ve already had, I think this guy’s very well grounded,” Scioscia said. “I think he understands and I think he’s going to be fine. I don’t think he’s going to get consumed with anything but getting himself ready on the field and then handling the other things afterward.”
Even the ballpark ushers got in on the first-day fun in the desert, some going on camera to discuss Ohtani. As the workout got underway, 15-month-old Keito Ando sported an Ohtani jersey and stood along a fence clinging to mother, Kaori.
Scioscia acknowledges it will take time for Ohtani to develop, to learn the pitchers and hitters at the major league level.
“Yeah, 23, where he should be reaching his full maturity but your body is still developing,” Scioscia said. “I think there’s a lot of things there, a lot of factors, that are part of it. He’s young.”
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