By Jim Walsh
Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani has never thrown a pitch or hit a baseball in a major league game, but he’s already created an international buzz by merely arriving in the East Valley and taking a few swings in batting practice at Tempe Diablo Stadium. And Cactus League officials hope Ohtani can give a jolt to the spring training season since fans may be caught off guard by its earliest start ever.
Ohtani is not even on the roster of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim yet, but his arrival for spring training catapulted the Angels into the Cactus League spotlight after years of standing in the shadow of traditional attendance powerhouses like the Chicago Cubs in Mesa and the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale.
Cactus League President Jeff Meyer said he is hoping the excitement created by Ohtani – a potential new star because of his promise as both a hitter and a pitcher – will create interest in spring training to help compensate for the fact that games are starting Friday, Feb. 23, instead of closer to March.
“We need a little boost with the games starting a little earlier,” Meyer said. “They refer to him as the Babe Ruth of Japan.”
Most fans traditionally don’t think about the Cactus League until March. Attendance is usually light in February, gradually building during spring break, when families from Chicago and elsewhere flee cold weather to bask in the Arizona sun.
But Meyer said fans need to re-orient themselves to an earlier Cactus League season, with play starting a week earlier in February to compensate for the earliest start ever to the Major League Baseball regular season, on March 29.
MLB moved up the schedule to accommodate three or four additional off-days for players, as required by the collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association. The playoffs also are likely to end in October rather than dragging into November.
“This is going to be a new start for us moving forward. This is going to be the time frame,” he said.
On Wednesday, Ohtani smiled a lot, bowed to a prominent Japanese businessman and patiently answered questions from a throng of more than 150 reporters and photographers – most of them Japanese – during a Marriott at the Buttes press conference.
The press conference was streamed and shown live on MLB.com, Fox Sports West and on Tokyo television network.
Questions ranged from his adjustment to spring training in the United States to how he was getting along with his new teammates to what it was like to live alone for the first time to the quality of Japanese food in the U.S.
Ohtani seemed confident, but also polite and unassuming – the opposite of so many athletes who talk big, pound their own chests and crave attention.
“Honestly, since my days in Japan, I never felt the pressure that everyone is talking about,” he said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “I just want to do my job and help my team win.”
Ohtani said his teammates have been introducing themselves to him, helping him make the transition from Japanese professional baseball to the majors.
He’s been playing some golf and basketball with his teammates and enjoyed a surprise visit from a former Japanese manager who was a mentor.
“Everyone has been very welcoming. I have been communicating through my interpreter. We’re going to have a great time,” he said. “Baseball-wise on the field, I will not be doing anything differently than I did in Japan.”
He said he’s willing to eat any sort of healthy food, but admitted he feels a bit lonely living in a large, three-bedroom apartment by himself, as opposed to a dormitory full of ballplayers in Japan.
Ohtani, 23, is not only attempting to establish himself in baseball’s toughest level of competition, but to make history as an unusual two-way player.
A left-handed hitter and a right-handed pitcher, Ohtani is expected to serve as a designated hitter for the Angels in games when he is not pitching.
Whether he will excel at one or both aspects of the game remains to be seen during the regular season.
“He’s obviously a very versatile player. He can throw 100 mph and slug 500-foot homers,” Meyer said. “It’s good for them (the Angels) to have some excitement. They have a lot of talent.”
Tempe Diablo Stadium manager Jerry Hall is anticipating an exciting and maybe even an unprecedented season. He said the much-anticipated Shohei spectacle is expected to be chronicled by about 120 to 130 Japanese media members a day at Diablo, pushing the stadium beyond its capability to handle the press.
“This is worldwide. This puts Tempe in the spotlight, definitely,” Hall said. “It’s going to be really exciting to see what happens.”
He said Diablo, with a seating capacity of about 9,000, is the “smallest and oldest” stadium in the league; the original structure was built in 1969 to accommodate the former Seattle Pilots.
The park, nestled near the Tempe Buttes and Interstate 10, has undergone extensive renovations at least twice.
“We are the most intimate,” Hall said, referring to a selling point for fans who crave a traditional spring training experience where it is still possible to watch players walk from the practice fields to the ballpark and to collect autographs.
While the practice fields and clubhouse were improved extensively, such intense media attention as the kind Ohtani is generating was not envisioned.
That left Hall with limited options for accommodating so many reporters, so he put up a tent in the parking lot behind the scoreboard in centerfield.
About 30 reporters were already staking out the players parking lot on Tuesday morning, when pitchers and catchers were due to report, hoping to photos of Ohtani’s arrival.
Hall is curious about whether Ohtani will be as strong a draw for baseball fans.
So far, the Angels have informed Hall that ticket sales are up about 8,000 from this time last year, even though there are 15 games this years compared to 17 last year, when there was a longer Cactus League season to prepare players for the World Baseball Classic.
“I’m wondering what the reaction the fans will have to him or is this a media thing,” Hall said. “It’s different than having an American star.”
The Cactus League drew a record 1,941,347 fans in 2017, buoyed by even a stronger-than-usual turnout for the world champion Cubs. Attendance per game dropped slightly because of the longer schedule.
The Angels typically finish in the middle of the pack in Cactus League attendance, ranking eighth in 2016 and 2015. With a much smaller ballpark and a less-rabid following, the Angels drew 114,780 fans during a 17-game schedule in 2017, an average of 6,752 per game.
In contrast, the Cubs, coming off their first world championship in over 100 years, drew 251,800 fans for 17 games, an average of 14,818 per game.
Despite numerous stories about Ohtani’s attempted feat, two representatives of Asian-American organizations in Phoenix clearly had never heard of Ohtani, but one said she would like to assist him as he adapts to Arizona.
“We would like to pursue it if we have an opportunity” to contact Ohtani, said Charmel de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Arizona Asian American Association. “We would like to welcome him and make him feel like family in Arizona.”
For more information, visit our Spring Training Guide.