Just two years later, it can be difficult to remember, but there was a time when Shohei Ohtani was slightly less famous and less ubiquitous than he is now — the near-certain AL MVP for the second time in three years and a man on the precipice of an unprecedented free agency. Or, at least, back then his fame was newer, which made it seem less ubiquitous.
For his first Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Ohtani competed in the Home Run Derby, started the game on the mound for the American League and served as his team’s DH. It was the first year he hit and pitched on the same day, and what was once an experiment had become the greatest spectacle in sports.
Watching it all unfold two summers ago in Denver, I was struck by his generosity, in the form of self-sacrifice, to serve as an ambassador for the sport. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to reconcile that impression with his abject unwillingness to talk to the media.
"I'm expecting to be pretty fatigued and exhausted after these two days," Ohtani said in July 2021, from the dais reserved for All-Star managers and their starting pitchers, through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. "But there's a lot of people that want to watch it, and I want to make those guys happy. That's why I'm going to do it."
Those comments have stuck with me ever since. Because they are an acknowledgement of something akin to human frailty and a glimpse into the motivation that powers the busiest man in baseball to take on more than he absolutely has to — and also because there has been little else in either of those veins to replace them.
If irony is built on subverting expectations, it makes sense that Ohtani is excellent fodder for it. Lately, though, it looks less like a boyish face that belies a superman's body or his singular excellence in a sport that rewards depth, and more like Los Angeles Angels general manager Perry Minasian telling reporters curious about Ohtani's interest in re-signing with his team: "That would be a question for him."
Ohtani last spoke to the media on Aug. 9 — nearly seven weeks ago. At the time, the Angels had a .500 record, Lucas Giolito was making his third start for the team that would soon see him leave on waivers, and Ohtani still had an intact UCL and (presumably) obliques to die for. He didn't talk after the Angels' skipped one of his starts, after he left a start following 26 pitchesdue to what turned out to be a torn UCL, after he came back hours later for the second game of a doubleheader and doubled as the DH, after Mike Trout tried and failed to return, after the Angels slipped out of even distant contention and gave up entirely, or even after he was forced to end his season — and possibly his Angels tenure — early.
He hasn’t talked despite remaining the most fascinating player alive, and he has remained the most fascinating player alive despite being mostly unknowable.
Athletes have an obligation to engage with the media because it’s part of their responsibility to the larger ecosystem in which we all work to maintain public interest in sports. The question is: Does interest entitle us to insight? With Ohtani, the interest is already there — indeed, already superlative — even in the absence of public engagement. It fuels a hunger for him to talk, even as it renders his doing so unnecessary.
I’m not sure of the right tone to strike here. To scold Ohtani is to absolve the Angels of their role as gatekeepers; to scold the Angels is to deny Ohtani’s agency. The point is not to cast an ominous admonition against pulling this kind of behavior in a big market such as New York City, should Ohtani aspire to sign here as a free agent. To do so would be an insult to both the size of the Angels’ market (even if they are “of Anaheim”) and the seriousness of actually small markets.
I also wonder if my frustration is professionally motivated and thus unsympathetic. Of course a reporter sees a grave injustice in a superstar avoiding the media. But Ohtani doesn't need the media — not to make many, many millions of dollars and not to be beloved. Still, my disappointment, I believe, is just as someone who loves baseball.
In lieu of the man himself, Ohtani's agent, Nez Balelo, spoke to media at the beginning of the month, which at least gave us some new source material to parse. Ohtani's arm injury, in particular, necessitated saying something — if only as an unsubtle attempt to assuage teams that might be interested in him this offseason.
“There’s really no need for him to address the media,” Balelo said of his client, whose every facial expression made on a baseball field becomes a meme. I would say I strongly disagree, but I suspect he’s measuring “need” in a very specific way — namely, as what will affect Ohtani’s free agency.
Among the many things we can't know without asking him is why Ohtani has so staunchly avoided speaking for himself at the height of his career. An uncharitable read would call into question whether he is an ambassador for baseball in any way except incidentally. His multifaceted greatness is driven mostly by self-interest — an unparalleled, almost pathological obsession with accomplishing incredible things. It's fan service only insofar as it's very cool to watch. Ultimately — and this doesn't make him a bad person — he's not doing this for us. Or the Japanese fans who just want more reasons to love him. Or the Japanese media contingent working in an all-Ohtani industry.
Ohtani the Enigma has captivated American and international baseball audiences for six years. We’ve learned very little about him and have been mostly content to fill in the gaps with a guileless love of the game. Perhaps to know more about Ohtani’s inner life would complicate that picture. But Ohtani is not actually a superhero, and his greatness as a baseball player would be a lot more interesting if we had a sense of the human behind it.