TOKYO – Everyone in Japan seems to be a fan of Shohei Ohtani, and the buzz even extends to his teammates.
That includes St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar — the first to play for Japan's national team because of ancestry. His mother Kumi was born in Japan.
Nootbaar just joined the squad and barely knows the Los Angeles Angels superstar. But he's been impressed, which is an understatement. Nootbaar was bragging about Ohtani to a small group inside the Tokyo Dome that included former major league and Japan league manager Bobby Valentine.
“He's just incredible,” Nootbaar said of Ohtani.
Just then, Ohtani came around the corner, gave Nootbaar a quick hug, and then disappeared down a hallway.
“Never seen it. Never seen it before. It's special,” Nootbaar added. “It's special.”
To which Valentine replied: “Enjoy it.”
Nootbaar seems to be.
Moments later, in a jam-packed news conference, Nootbaar elaborated even more about Ohtani, who is expected to start for Japan on Thursday against China in their opening game of the World Baseball Classic. And when he's pulled, he's expected to be the DH.
Nootbaar has started as the lead-off hitter for Japan in a few practice games and could be there again with his team among the tournament favorites alongside the Dominican Republic and the United States.
“I’m just like you guys,” Nootbaar said. “I think I’m just like a fan being able to watch him. I’m just fortunate to get a front-row seat to it. It’s been pretty amazing to watch him go about his business, and how he goes about his work and handles himself on and off the field. It’s really impressive seeing that side.
“It’s something I’ve never seen before,” Nootbaar added. "He’s a freak of nature and even a better guy, and I mean that wholeheartedly. I’ve been very impressed with how he goes about his business.”
The Japanese have a word they use to describe Ohtani — “nitoryu” — which refers to a samurai fighting with two swords. Or more broadly, it mean's doing two things simultaneously.
That's Ohtani. He pitches. He's a power hitter. And his return after a long absence to play in Japan in the WBC is reminiscent of the frenzy around Ichiro Suzuki's final Major League Baseball games four years ago — also at the Tokyo Dome.
Ohtani couldn't wait to add to the buzz around him. He hit a pair of three-run home runs on Monday in Osaka in Japan's exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers.
In anticipation of Japan's practice game on Monday, the Sports Nippon newspaper noted in a large headline that it had been 1,974 days since Ohtani last played in Japan. That was on Oct. 9, 2017, his last game with the Nippon-Ham Fighters before going to the Angels.
Similar to tennis player Naomi Osaka, Ohtani is not just a Japanese star but a global marquee name who draws record endorsements. Ohtani is reported to earn $20 million annually in endorsements, far more than any major leaguer.
Ohtani represents largely high-end brands, a Japanese bank and a Japanese watchmaker. His face is everywhere, even on posters in department stores selling cosmetics for men.
Osaka, who is pregnant and has stepped away from tennis, is the world’s top earning female athlete.
Ohtani has agreed to a $30 million deal with the Angels for the 2023 season. After that he will be a free agent and his next contract could be the largest ever for a major leaguer.
Koichi Nakano, an observer of Japanese politics who teaches at Sophia University, said the “idolization of Ohtani in Japan reflects its own inferiority complex vis-a-vis the fatherland of baseball that is the U.S.”
Nakano noted the power of Ohtani. Japanese television often does not cover national parliamentary debates, but seldom misses following Japanese “heroes” like Ohtani excelling in the United States.
“So each time where there is a Japanese ‘export’ that was hugely successful in MLB," Nakano said, "the Japanese are enthralled.”