IN 2002, Hideki Matsui hit 50 home runs for his Japan league baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants. It was clear to his fans—even the ones who were just eight, like Shohei Ohtani—what was going to happen next: Matsui would leave Japan and replicate his prodigious slugging in the major leagues. Which he did, playing the next five seasons for the Yankees.
Ask Ohtani if he recalls being at all upset by Matsui's departure and he flashes a mystified grin. "I thought it was a really good thing," Ohtani says through a translator. "I was more proud to see my countryman doing well. If [Matsui] didn't make the move, then we would never have been able to see how the best Japanese players perform in the States."
Of course it is now Ohtani who is showcasing his talent in major league baseball. And for all the abundant feel-good angles to the Ohtani story in the States, consider this one: Ohtani's extraordinary moonlighting is playing as well in Japan as it is here. So often in sports, one league's overseas sensation is another league's loss. In this case, there's no sense of disloyalty. Ohtani didn't abandon Japanese baseball; he is validating it. "There's no ambivalence here," says John E. Gibson, who's covered baseball in Japan for the last 20 years. "There's a grand sense of pride."
For three straight days, Japanese national newscasts led with stories of Ohtani's home runs. In restaurants patrons stop conversations and gather around monitors to watch Ohtani's at bats. In offices work stops when he comes to the plate.
Shohei-mania rages with special ferocity in Sapporo, where Ohtani played for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Before Fighters' games, Ohtani's MLB highlights play on the stadium video boards. Former teammates raptly follow his progress as well. The Fighters were on the road in Sendai when Ohtani hit his second home run for the Angels. "We were watching in the clubhouse, and everyone was going crazy," says Fighters third baseman Brandon Laird, himself a former major leaguer.
Before Ohtani departed to the majors, Japanese fans were wary that, after a hitting slump or a rough outing on the mound, his risk-averse MLB overlords would make him choose one position and abandon his experiment. Last year, as Ohtani was deciding which team to join, his longtime manager Hideki Kuriyama pleaded with the suitors, "Please trust him all the way through."
That is: Trust the process. The Angels did. And now the Great Ohtani Experiment goes on with the echoes of a cultural exchange, not a trade deficit.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
BOXER ROD SALKA DONNED SHORTS WITH A WALL PATTERN AND THE WORDS "AMERICA 1ST" FOR HIS BOUT AGAINST MEXICAN FIGHTER FRANCISCO VARGAS. AN INSPIRED VARGAS WON IN A SIX-ROUND TKO.
THEY SAID IT
"IT'S NOT THE FIRST TIME THAT'S HAPPENED."
SIDNEY CROSBY, the Penguins captain, upon hearing that Flyers fans put his picture in the urinals at Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center for Game 3 of their first-round series.