It’s a hell of a thing to be compared to Babe Ruth.
Ruth has become such a cultural touchstone that we’ve lost an appreciation for just how ridiculously talented the man was. “They’re the Babe Ruth of ___” is a relatively common phrase used to describe someone at the pinnacle of their field. Ruth has become synonymous with the general concept of being the best at something, which in and of itself is a relatively simple concept.
But what Ruth did — reaching wild levels of success as both a hitter and pitcher — is possibly the greatest performance-based achievement in the history of sports. He did it in a time when the game was simpler, when there wasn’t as deep an understanding of the sciences of hitting and pitching, and when the competition wasn’t as fierce as it could have been because of the exclusion of players of color. But putting Ruthian expectations onto a player’s shoulders is both a compliment of the highest order and a terrible curse.
Because of his success as both a hitter and pitcher in Japan, it’s natural to immediately draw a line between Ruth and Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani is now trying to do it at the sport’s highest level, in a country with a different culture and a different language. He’s only 23 years old.
He’s trying to do it under one hell of a microscope. Every success and failure will be dissected and used as a referendum on his worth as a player and whether the Angels were foolish to try to make this work.
Given the circumstances, it almost feels impossible for Ohtani to succeed and be a true star on both sides of the ball.
But what if he did it?
What if, after settling in to the mayhem that is Major League Baseball, Ohtani found his stroke and mowed down hitters while being one of the Angels’ best hitters? What if Ohtani really did become the closest thing possible to a modern Babe Ruth? Do we dare hope that Ohtani will become the brightest star in the sport?
It’s far too early to determine whether he will. That’s not the point. The point is that Ohtani is trying to do something that hasn’t really been attempted since Ruth completely redefined baseball. That he has enough talent to even attempt it feels like a fact that’s been underappreciated, as does the fact that he has the courage to do it here at such a young age. Don’t forget that Ohtani came here earlier than expected, and in doing so he forfeited an incredible amount of money.
Ohtani is attempting the impossible, and by God, so far he’s doing the damn thing. He hit his first big league home run last night.
That came two days after he earned his first win, and it was one of three hits on the night. Slowly but surely, Ohtani is settling in. The big leg kick he displayed in his swing during spring training is gone, replaced with a much subtler and compact toe-point. It’s a major adjustment, and one that almost certainly allows him to get to the ball with much more ease. It’s a massive shift for someone who just last year hit .332/.403/.540 with that leg kick.
Ohtani is a player committed to greatness. Achieving success as both a hitter and pitcher would be a sign of greatness, and would give Ohtani an argument to hold the distinction of being the best player in the game. If we combine, say, a season’s worth of even just Jeff Samardzija-level pitching production with 400 plate appearances’ worth of league average hitting, that’s at least a five- or six-win player. That’s an MVP candidate.
The ominous scouting reports coming out of spring training feel like they surfaced a lifetime ago.
What Ohtani represents is more than just an improbable attempt at immortality. He is unquestionably the most interesting man in the game right now. He is must-see television, if for no other reason than to see whether he can pull it off. His teammates seemed genuinely thrilled for him when he hit his home run, and it’s hard not to root for him.
We naturally gravitate toward the extraordinary, toward the unprecedented and the unlikely. Ohtani is unlike anyone we’ve seen in our lifetimes. He’s the sort of player who dares us to dream and extend the mental boundaries of what we consider to be possible. There was never going to be another Babe Ruth. And indeed, that may yet hold true, in the sense that there may never be a player who so thoroughly dominates in both facets of the game. Ohtani has the chance to give him a run for his money.
That alone is one of the most exciting things to happen in baseball in years. Even if Ohtani is merely good and not great as both a hitter and a pitcher, he’ll have solidified himself as one of the most gifted athletes ever.
SHOwered and ready for a good night’s sleep. pic.twitter.com/eTap1t0Vm1
— Angels (@Angels) April 4, 2018
It’s just April 4. Ohtani still has much to prove, and still has all the time in the world to fail. Tuesday night was the latest step toward greatness, and another reason to hope that another superstar has arrived in the game.