Opinion

The All-Star Game is the Shohei Ohtani showcase America needs

The Angels' slugger-ace is incredible. Why isn't he getting more attention?

The first thing I saw when I arrived in Japan was Shohei Ohtani. Exiting the jet bridge at Tokyo's Haneda Airport in 2019, a picture of the newly-minted Los Angeles Angel beamed down at the international visitors queuing for customs — including this still-bitter Seattle Mariners fan who was in town for MLB's opening day. Though I can't remember what the Ohtani ad was even selling (maybe an air mattress), the poster certainly predated confirmation stateside of Ohtani living up to the hype of being "better than any baseball player ever."

But I've never actually seen Ohtani's face in an ad in the United States — which seems pretty odd for someone who is now regularly getting described as the new Babe Ruth. Bafflingly, Ohtani is not yet a household name in the country where he actually plays. There's an opportunity for that to change this week when the two-way player makes history as the first person to be selected for an All-Star Game as both a hitter and a pitcher (the current home run leader, he'll hammer balls to the Coors Field bleachers during Monday's Home Run Derby too).

It's just the Ohtani showcase MLB so badly needs.

Since Derek Jeter retired in 2014, baseball has lacked a true superstar. The NBA has LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant; the NFL has Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Russell Wilson; but MLB is so faceless that in 2017, MLB The Show 17 resorted to putting Ken Griffey Jr. — a batter who hadn't played a game in seven years — on its cover. The Angels' Mike Trout, with his assured place in the Hall of Fame and his sweet personality, might have assumed the mantle but shuns any interest in the role: "He has regularly turned down invitations to do late-night talk shows and major national endorsement gigs, not to mention home run derbies and the World Baseball Classic," ESPN points out. Indeed, the problem isn't that the sport has lacked talent deserving of superstardom, but for a variety of reasons, MLB players haven't been able to go from being "well known among baseball fans" to being "well known among the general public."

First and foremost of those hurdles is that baseball remains much more fragmented than the other major sports. Regional broadcast rights often prevent fans from watching out-of-market games (fans of National League teams, for example, are unlikely to see many games on their TVs featuring Ohtani). If you aren't a player for a marquee franchise like the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Yankees, or the Boston Red Sox, or at least a regular opponent in their divisions, you're not likely to get much national attention at all, regardless of how exceptional you might be (plus those late-night start times for East Coasters preclude many West Coast players from getting widely seen). Additionally, while a really great quarterback or shooter can carry an NFL or NBA team, even having two of the best players in baseball history can't lift the Los Angeles Angels from a dismal fourth-place spot in the AL West — and it's hard to be recognized as a national superstar when your team perennially misses the playoffs (call that the Mike Trout problem, too). 

But Ohtani's lack of national star power might also be due to the rest of America just needing to catch up. The former Nippon League player came to the U.S. with incredible hype, but it's taken him a few rough, injury-filled years to get his footing. Now, though, he's seemingly unstoppable: "Imagine, if you will, a batter more successful than Aaron Judge, a pitcher allowing fewer hits per plate appearance than Max Scherzer or Carlos Rodón, and a runner faster than Trevor Story, and then remember you need not imagine, because that's Ohtani," MLB.com writes. "He is here. He is doing it now. Nightly."

Ohtani is helped, also, by coming across as an extremely loveable player. "Playing baseball is genuinely fun for me, and I enjoy every moment of my time on the field, whether it's practice or game time," the 27-year-old once earnestly told Bleacher Report, and his infectious love of the sport translates into seeing him play. "He should be on Wheaties boxes, he should be on video game covers, he should be on talk shows," Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising, told The Ringer, speaking to both Ohtani's dominance and his wholesomeness as a sportsman. "Somebody that towers above their sport like that, you'd think he'd be just all over the place."

The All-Star Game is nothing if not a key marketing opportunity for MLB. This is the league's chance to prove that not only does it have plenty of talent worth watching, but also to introduce America to the player who wholly deserves to be the cultural face of the sport. Dorfman, too, pointed out that a moment like "a big show at the Home Run Derby" could help Ohtani catch the attention of more casual watchers of baseball, and potentially mark the beginning of his bigger breakthrough with the public.

So if you weren't planning to watch the All-Star Game at this point, reconsider. Because as with everything Ohtani does, this will be a show you won't want to miss.

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