TEMPE, Ariz. — There were no media tents set up, hordes of camera crews waiting in the parking lot, or waves of reporters flocking towards him to capture every sound bite.
Sure, there were still about 45 reporters and TV crews gathered around him at the Los Angeles Angels’ spring training complex after the team’s first workout Wednesday, but it paled in comparison to a year ago.
The novelty, at least in his second year of spring training, has waned.
This spring, instead of an unknown phenomenon, Shohei Ohtani is a rehabbing designated hitter who won’t appear in a single spring training game, won’t throw a pitch in a game all season and will be limited to the role of designated hitter.
Check back this time next year, and all of the hoopla and pageantry may be back with a flourish, with Ohtani showing once again that he’s baseball’s greatest two-way player since Babe Ruth.
Ohtani, 24, more comfortable and relaxed Wednesday addressing the media for the first time since the end of last season, is almost relieved now that the Tommy John surgery is behind him. He smiled frequently, laughed, and even cracked jokes.
When asked his first impression of new manager Brad Ausmus, he cracked: “Very good-looking guy.”
When the laughter died down, he went the politically correct route, and said, “Oh, [former Angels manager Mike] Scioscia was good looking, too.”
Ohtani, turning serious at one point, was asked whether he had any regrets. He could have undergone Tommy John surgery last June when he was first diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He refused, and elected to play the rest of the season as a DH, delaying his surgery as long as possible.
If he had the surgery in the summer of 2018, he would have been able to start this season on time as a DH, but he simply wasn’t ready to shut it down. He wanted to prove he could be a force as a hitter.
Certainly, he accomplished that, even with a torn ligament, hitting .318 the final two months with 13 homers and 36 RBI. He ran away with the American League Rookie of the Year award, hitting .285 with 22 homers and 61 RBI for the season, while going 4-2 with a 3.31 on the mound. He was the first player since Ruth to hit 20 homers and pitch in 10 games the same season.
“I have no regrets,” Ohtani said though his interpreter. “At the time the doctor told me I needed Tommy John, I was swinging the bat really well and seeing the ball really well. I wanted that experience level to finish out the season.
“I think ultimately that will help out this season. Even though I might miss the first month, but in the long run, I think it’s going to help out.”
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The Angels realize they are in unchartered waters with Ohtani. They are unaware of any position player undergoing Tommy John surgery who also happens to be an elite pitcher.
If Ohtani was simply a DH, Angels GM Billy Eppler says, there would be no reason to have Tommy John surgery. If he were solely a position player, he could be back in the outfield by mid-summer.
This is totally different. It’s as if the Angels are rehabbing two players at once using the same body.
So far, so good.
“The process is going very smooth,” Ohtani says. “So far, I don’t feel anything in my elbow.”
The Angels have put Ohtani on a program ranging from simply lifting up the bat and taking swings, to hitting off a tee, to soft-toss, to batting practice, to hitting in simulated games.
Oh, and in the meantime, he’ll begin a throwing program.
“We won’t introduce him to two new things at once,” Eppler said. “We’re not going to rush this. He understands that he’s focused on what’s presented to him and he wants to master that.
“He’s very process-based.”
Ohtani will be left behind when the Angels break camp in six weeks. They don’t want him playing in minor-league rehab games. They instead will have him play in their own simulated games where they can control the environment.
If everything goes according to plan, and there are no setbacks, Ohtani could be the Angels’ everyday DH in May with no restrictions.
“It’s going to be a slow process,” Ausmus said. “We need to protect this guy long-term. We’re going to be extremely cautious. We don’t want the fact that he might be able to DH affect him being able to pitch in 2020.
“So, we’re hoping for May. If it goes longer, it goes longer.”
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The Angels undoubtedly will be patient. They understand his value and international appeal. Mike Trout is the face of the organization, but he has only two years left on his contract with no guarantee he’ll be around after the 2020 season.
This could be Ohtani’s team by 2021, and perhaps the most dynamic player in baseball at a time the industry desperately needs him.
“He’s just such a tremendous talent,” Ausmus says. “You just don’t see guys like that.”
Ohtani showed us plenty of glimpses a year ago, certainly living up to the hype and surreal expectations.
Once he’s back playing every day, without worrying about taking time off to focus on his next start on the mound, you can’t but wonder what Ohtani may have in store for all of us this time around.
It’s a sequel that’ll have the baseball world watching.