DENVER — Not many can get bounced in the first round of an event many thought they would win easily, yet still live up to the hype.
Enter Shohei Ohtani.
The Los Angeles Angels’ two-way mega-star didn’t disappoint on Monday night at Coors Field. MLB’s Home Run Derby, a sure hit with fans both at the ballpark and on TV, was frenzied, fun, and made the stadium rock from unbridled buzz.
Many fans stood at their seats to watch Ohtani swing the bat in person on the big stage in front of MLB America.
The expectations were so high — Rocky Mountain high, if you will — that some honestly believed the altitude of this place might help Ohtani leave the building.
Yes, many fans hoped to see him actually hit the ball out of the ballpark.
And while that didn’t happen, an epic battle in the first round of the event stole the show, eclipsed the eventual finals.
Yes, Ohtani and the Nationals’ Juan Soto showed out, needing double overtime and then a swing-off to determine a winner.
Ohtani’s final two homers after the three-minute playoff round ended with distances of 513 and 500 feet. Yes, moon shots. That earned Ohtani an extra minute of time. He cranked six more to tie Soto at 22 homers all.
It looked as if Ohtani was going to win it. Both tied at 28, Ohtani failed to homer on his last three swings. For sure, he looked gassed.
That set up a three swing, swing-off. Soto went first and blasted all three homers and Ohtani rolled over his first swing and hit a grounder.
Ohtani was done. Bounced. Finished. Defeated.
The sellout crowd, however, roared like he won. Still, they appreciated the effort. It was epic, something to marvel at, something they will store in their memory bank as life carries on.
You can beat Ohtani, the 27-year-old star from Japan, will remember the moment as well. In a foreign ballpark, filled with fans from all over the country, they cheered his name like he was their favorite player.
Ohtani’s big day, however, started with controversy. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith basically said that Ohtani doesn’t help sell baseball because he doesn’t speak the language.
Many came after Smith for his comments, calling him xenophobic. Rightly, Smith apologized for his bad.
The bottom line is that some players have such talent that it shines through language barriers.
We saw that with Ichiro, who was Rookie of the Year and MVP in his first MLB season after coming over from Japan to play. For the Yankees, Hideki Matsui was a fan favorite in Da Bronx and won the 2009 World Series MVP.
Let’s not get this twisted. Ohtani is a superstar. You can see it with your eyes.
Language and culture matter little on the diamond.
If you know the game, and appreciate the unbelievable talent a player must have in order to excel as both a pitcher and power hitter in the the majors, you can’t help but be drawn to him.
The buzz at Coors Field last night was about Ohtani, no one else. It was his party, everyone else was just an invited guest.
You can bet it will be the case tonight for the All-Star Game. Ohtani is the first player to be named as an All-Star pitcher and hitter at the same time.
His peers are in awe of his ability and embrace what he’s been able to accomplish.
“This is the top level of baseball and he’s performing at the highest level on both sides,” A’s first baseman Matt Olson said to the media here in Denver. “It’s crazy. Everybody that’s here, he’s doing both — pitchers and hitters. It is cool.”
Clearly, this dude has lived up to the billing. It didn’t seem possible when you heard all the stories about his talent. MLB teams were offering boatloads of cash to sign him. He wound up picking the Angels.
And even if he’s not on your team, you can’t watch or follow baseball and not be taken aback by his enormous talent. He is a must-see player.
We saw that at the Derby. Easily, Ohtani won when he lost.