Last week, if angels assistant pitching coach Dom Chiti walked past the visiting weight room at Fenway Park, he saw the team’s two-way star and defending MVP of the American League do one of the things he often does: train. Shohei Ohtani grimaced as he tried to pick up a silver rubber ball about 12 inches in diameter and throw it against the wall. Suddenly he turned. “NB!” shouted Ohtani and hit the ball to his coach.
The lob nearly knocked over 63-year-old Chiti, who braced himself for what he expected to be a 20-pound projectile… only to realize the ball was filled with air. Ohtani, 27, dissolved into laughter.
“He’s bad for me,” Chiti says. However, there is not much shame in that. Chiti was one of three victims that week of that prank, which Ohtani says is his favorite. As it turned out, Ohtani was doing another one of the things he often does: acting crazy.
“He’s always messing around,” said left-handed Patrick Sandoval. ‘Very harmless stuff. It’s fun.”
Ohtani rarely speaks to the media — he declined to be interviewed one-on-one for this story through the team — so some elements of his personality have been slow to penetrate the public consciousness. But in recent weeks, cameras have captured him dramatically collapsing on the chest of coach Benji Gil at first base; joking to fire a ball near a fence behind which a White socks fan looked at him; and, after going 3-for-24 to start the season, pretended to perform CPR on his bat in the dugout. Fans who pay close attention are beginning to learn what his teammates already know: Ohtani, who can throw the ball 100 mph and hit it 400 feet, is arguably the most talented player in the history of the sport. He’s also quite funny.
“He can seem so focused because he’s as disciplined as anyone I’ve ever met,” said GM Perry Minasian. “His work ethic and routine are insane, [down to] but there are times when he can relax and joke, and it’s pretty fun to watch.”
When Minasian took over for the 2021 season, he made two significant changes to Ohtani’s routine. First, his usage: In Japan, where Ohtani was born and played until ’18, he pitched once a week and played the outfield three or four times a week, never the day before or after a start. He never got more than 382 at bats or made more than 24 starts in a season. The Angels tried to mirror that by tracking everything from how much sleep he got to how many times he ducked back to first base on pickoff attempts in an effort to protect him. After three good, but not great seasons, Ohtani rebuilt his body. He adjusted his diet based on a series of blood tests. He went to Driveline, a private facility that has helped pitchers, including Clayton Kershaw, streamline their mechanics and add speed. Ohtani finally felt healthy, he said. So last spring, Minasian and Maddon decided that Ohtani would dictate his own availability. As it turned out, that meant almost every day.
The other change was Ohtani’s training program. Since he was both a pitcher and a batter, he never quite was. During spring training, he skipped pitchers’ field practice to get to batting practice in time. He then played with his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, instead of the other pitchers. All this caused discomfort and sometimes a touch of jealousy among his teammates. So Los Angeles adjusted the schedule so that he could participate fully in both areas.
As his teammates got to know him better, they were surprised by what they learned.
“In the beginning I was very [taken aback]”, says outfielder Brandon Marsh. “I was like, ‘Ho, okay, Sho, you have a funny side.'”
A convincing poker face helps sell some of his jokes. It also hides his personality from outsiders. “He’s a lot outgoing than I thought he would be,” said second baseman Tyler Wade, who joined the Angels from the Yankees last November.
Although Ohtani’s English has improved over the past five years, he still relies on Mizuhara for nuance. But the language barrier is much less imposing than it seems, and besides, many jokes need no interpretation: the weightless balls joke, for example, or his exaggerated reactions. (His surprised face, eyes wide, mouth open, is a favorite.) He likes to sneak up behind teammates in the dugout, tap them on their far shoulder and act innocent when they turn around. He plays Clash Royale with teammates and beams outrageously when he wins. (“I am the king!” he will remember them for days.) And his smile – often directed at himself – is childish and infectious.
“He just giggles a lot,” Maddon says.
When Ohtani swears, he usually does so in English, to the benefit of his teammates. He often shows up with a well-timed expletive, although no one wanted to be specific about which one he uses. “Everyone learns the bad words first, right?” says third baseman Anthony Rendon.
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Some jokes are only made funny by the joy Ohtani puts in them. After throwing a bullpen session, he waits until Sandoval isn’t paying attention, then tosses the ball to him and smiles as he drops it. Ohtani also likes to stare at Sandoval until he notices, then repeats what he says. Before a match last week, Sandoval turned to his locker and saw Ohtani staring at him.
“Are you serious?” said Sandoval.
“Are you serious?” Ohtani imitated.
“You’re a bully!” said Sandoval. They both cackled.
When teammates discuss an opponent’s pitcher, Ohtani sometimes provides an incorrect scouting report. “Good two-seamer,” he’ll say of a guy who only throws four-seamers, letting his teammates pause and rack their brains before realizing he’s kidding.
All of Ohtani’s American teammates have noticed how bright the spotlight is on him. About two dozen Japanese reporters cover him as their full-time beat, and because he doesn’t address the media until after he’s pitched, they often have to turn to his teammates for content. That first spring training session, they sometimes answered questions about what Ohtani had eaten for breakfast that day.
“He deserves all the recognition he gets, but it’s a lot of attention, and I think he just enjoys being one of the guys in the clubhouse,” says reliever Mike Mayers.
Many angels are famous in Japan because they keep appearing in pictures of Ohtani; he recently told Wade that the second baseman has a lot of admirers abroad, and he now only addresses him as “ikemen,” which means “hot guy.” Ohtani hands out chocolate from the piles of fan mail he receives every day. “I like it a lot,” says reliever Archie Bradley, who locks next to him in Anaheim. “He gives me a lot of candy.”
Ohtani does everything he can to be a good teammate, people around him say. For example, typical experienced batters choose an appropriate hour to use the batting cage and rookies move out of the way. You would expect this to be doubly true for a skilled batter who also needs to find time to throw a bullpen session.
“He’s Shohei Ohtani, but when people come into the cage, he’s very cordial; he lets them go first,” said assistant hit coach John Mallee. “He’s doing a lot of things that I haven’t really seen veterans do — when it’s their time, it’s their time. He makes sure that his teammates are taken care of before he himself, and that is really unique for a superstar.”
Ohtani understands how good he is, and after four years sharing the field with Mike Trout, arguably the greatest player who ever lived, and still never made it through the postseason, he understands how much he needs his teammates to be good too.
“I really like the team,” he said told reporters in September by Mizuhara. “I like the fans. I like the atmosphere in the team. But more than that, I want to win. That’s the most important thing for me. So I’ll leave it at that.”
Minasian says he spoke to Ohtani afterward and said he wanted to win too. And the Angels have made progress this year: At 21-12, they are half a game behind the Astros in the AL West and lead the sport in points scored, with 164.
Ohtani is doing his best to boost that number. A few weeks ago, he hammered a line drive into the hole for a double. He came by to score and threw himself dramatically on the bench.
“Ugh!” he moaned.
“What?” his teammates asked anxiously.
Ohtani sighed, waited for a beat, and said, with perfect comedic timing, “Homer pitch.”
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