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Where EAST meets the Northwest

TWO-WAY PLAYER. Shohei Ohtani (#17) of the Los Angeles Angels is seen in the dugout before a baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Anaheim, California, in this September 4, 2021 file photo. Two-way superstar Ohtani is the winner of The Associated Pressí Male Athlete of the Year award. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

From The Asian Reporter, V32, #1 (January 3, 2022), page 10.

One of a kind: Ohtani wins AP Male Athlete of Year award

By Greg Beacham

The Associated Press

ANAHEIM, Calif. ó Most of the time in professional sports, itís easy to think itís all been done before.

With so many fine-tuned athletes constantly pushing each other to the peak of human potential, we can experience unprecedented demonstrations of sporting brilliance every week of our lives. But itís truly rare to witness anything that isnít fundamentally just a better, more prolific version of something weíve already seen.

Thatís why Shohei Ohtaniís astonishing redefinition of modern baseball captured the worldís attention so vividly in 2021 ó and thatís why the Los Angeles Angelsí two-way superstar is the winner of The Associated Pressí Male Athlete of the Year award.

The unanimous American League MVP put together a season with no analogue in the past century of his sport. Almost no one had been an everyday two-way player for many decades ó and nobody has been both one of baseballís top power hitters and one of its best starting pitchers since Babe Ruth starred at the plate and on the mound for the Boston Red Sox in 1919.

"Heís doing something we havenít seen in our lifetimes, but heís also doing it at the very highest level of hitting and pitching," Angels manager Joe Maddon said late in the regular season. "Heís doing more than other players, but heís also doing it better than almost everybody else on that field, and those are the greatest players in the game, his contemporaries. Heís playing their game, but heís also playing a different game."

Ohtani hit 46 homers and drove in 100 runs with a .965 OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) while playing in 126 games as the ALís best designated hitter, as evidenced by his Silver Slugger award. He finished third in the majors in homers after leading the sport for much of the season.

Ohtani also started 23 games on the mound, going 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA (Earned Run Average) and 156 strikeouts over 130 1/3 innings as the Angelsí ace and one of the ALís top right-handers. He has a 100-mph fastball, but his splitter might be the best pitch in baseball, with movement that resembles a ball rolling off the edge of a table.

The 6í4" star also was among the fastest baserunners in the majors while stealing 26 bases and scoring 103 runs. He even led the league with eight triples ó and he also played a little outfield when asked.

Any one of these achievements would be impressive for a 27-year-old hitting his prime in his fourth season since moving from Japan to the major leagues.

Doing it all at the same time is something that almost nobody whoís currently alive had ever seen.

Ohtani kept baseballís historians and statheads metaphorically buried up to their eyes in dusty record books all summer as they dug into the early 20th-century annals to identify the last players to accomplish the statistical superlatives Ohtani was currently blazing past.

Mike Trout, Ohtaniís three-time AL MVP teammate, called Ohtaniís season "nothing short of electric."

"At times, I felt like I was back in Little League," Trout added. "To watch a player throw eight innings, hit a home run, steal a base, and then go play right field was incredible."

Fans across the world agreed: Despite his soft-spoken personality and single-minded focus on his sport, Ohtani has become an icon wherever baseball is played and a known figure even beyond the gameís traditional borders.

"Iíve never seen fans get to ballparks so early and stay to the end," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said in July. "Thatís what heís bringing to the equation. I love it. Seems like every pitch when heís at the plate, you can hear the oohs and aahs. I think itís great for baseball."

Ohtaniís success not only commanded fansí attention on both sides of the Pacific, but also reignited a debate long considered finished about the merits of sports specialization in a country where young athletes are often encouraged to stop competing in multiple disciplines even before they reach their teens. Nobody currently has Ohtaniís overall talents, but big-league teams are increasingly open to the possibility of two-way contributors across their organizations.

Ohtani lives a quiet life in both Anaheim and Japan, but he is unfailingly gracious when lauded for his unique achievements. Sometimes he seems just as surprised by his multifaceted success as the rest of the world, while at other times he expresses the quiet confidence necessary to do such a thing in the first place.

"Iím a student of the game, so I do feel like I need to grow every year, and I think Iíve been able to do that," Ohtani said through his interpreter and constant companion, Ippei Mizuhara.

Ohtaniís achievements are even more impressive because theyíve happened with the Angels, arguably the majorsí most disappointing franchise of the last half-decade despite their hefty payroll and elite talent in sunny Southern California.

With Trout missing nearly the entire season due to injury, Los Angeles won only 77 games despite Ohtaniís Herculean efforts, missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year and posting their sixth straight losing record. Ohtani accomplished his feats at the plate with an often terrible lineup protecting him in the batting order.

Better times seem possible for the revamped Angels in 2022, and Ohtani says his biggest goal is winning in his next two years with the club. No matter what his future holds, Ohtani will always be remembered for a 2021 season that blew the sports worldís collective mind.

"Just a fabulous, fabulous year," Maddon said. "Thereís only one person that can duplicate it. That would be him."

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