At the All-Star Game, Shohei Ohtani’s quiet grace has everyone in awe

At the All-Star Game, Shohei Ohtani’s quiet grace has everyone in awe

SEATTLE — It’s four months until the winter of Shohei Ohtani, and reasonable people are already standing in a long line to praise him. They’re prepared to stampede, if need be, when the most incomparable free agent in sports history becomes available.

At this All-Star Game, it’s hard to know whether the compliments are innocent expressions of admiration or sly attempts at tampering. When talking about Ohtani, even tempered appreciation sounds like hyperbole. He’s six seasons into the most prolonged two-way dominance baseball has ever seen. Over time, he has proved to be a stable Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher and a fearsome slugger still ascending at the plate.

Everyone throws him bouquets. Dusty Baker, the Houston Astros manager leading the American League all-stars, called Ohtani “one of the most polite, most honorable opponents that we face.” Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr., two of the sport’s most acclaimed young players, approached Ohtani giddily Monday afternoon, and Acuña pulled his phone from his back pocket for a photo before arranging the three players to ensure Ohtani stood in the middle. When asked whether he would try to recruit Ohtani to the New York Mets, fellow Japanese star Kodai Senga joked, “I’m going to put this hat on him right now.”

It’s as if the quality of your Ohtani applause is a reflection of your taste. In a sport with a bad habit of normalizing the spectacular, no self-respecting baseball connoisseur has dared make Ohtani seem mundane.

“He’s the most incredible athlete I’ve ever seen in baseball,” said Baker, who talks often about his experiences with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. “I’ve seen some great players, but I mean none that can both run like the wind, throw 100 miles an hour and hit as well as anybody in the game.”

And there’s a possibility that, soon, he can be yours. Well, with a couple of asterisks: The bidding war should include multiple offers of more money than any athlete has ever seen in a single contract, and he’s believed to have a strong West Coast bias.

“I’ve never been a free agent before, so I’m not sure how that’s going to be,” Ohtani said through an interpreter, maintaining his season-long preference to stay in the moment. “Like I said before, I’m focused on this season right now. I just want to do my best this year and try to get as many wins as possible.”

Because the Los Angeles Angels have yet to make the playoffs with the MVP tandem of Ohtani and Mike Trout, he seems likely to be poached. After a solid start this season, the Angels (45-46) are under .500 again, and with Trout expected to be sidelined for at least a month with a broken hand, the ballclub is watching another year of Ohtani’s prime circle the drain. The franchise is reportedly reluctant to deal Ohtani at the trade deadline, not wanting to be the team that gave away the evolved Babe Ruth. However, if the Angels stand pat, they risk losing a global icon in free agency for nothing better than a compensatory draft pick.

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If the Angels take that chance without a strong sense Ohtani would return, they will have committed team-building malpractice. And if winning is his priority, there is no way Ohtani would comfort the Angels with even a soft commitment.

“Those feelings get stronger year by year,” Ohtani said of playing for a contender. “It sucks to lose.”

That’s as close as Ohtani will get to making a headline. He’s not a star who applies pressure through the media. He’s not passive-aggressive. He doesn’t speak in code. He competes quietly and does the most thorough job of adding value of any player in the game. Because of a blister, Ohtani was not expected to pitch in the All-Star Game. So without the part of him that has struck out 132 hitters in 100⅓ innings, he had to showcase only the slugger who leads the majors with 32 home runs, six triples and 226 total bases. He’s also hitting .302, the highest average of his career.

The hitting half of the player could demand a $350 million contract without any sheepishness. And the pitching half is a rotation-altering ace, typically the most coveted commodity in baseball.

When asked to predict an offer for Ohtani, Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez declared: “$600 million for 10 years.” Then he laughed maniacally.

On the surface, the number is absurd because it would shatter the record $426.5 million deal that Trout agreed to 2019, and the $60 million annual salary would be way more than the $40 million per season that the New York Yankees gave Aaron Judge last winter. An American sports league has never fully guaranteed a player $500 million.

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Unless Ohtani wants to sign for a shorter period, he seems a lock to surpass that number. Ohtani turned 29 last week, and while he already has performed both of his roles at an elite level for an unfathomably long time, he may be closer to the end of his prime as a two-way superstar than we think. His feats are so impossible that it’s dangerous to expect this level of greatness to last deep into his 30s. But it’s merely conjecture, and teams won’t hedge against Ohtani’s longevity too much. Even if he’s limited to four more years of upper-crust pitching, that is a justifiable window to go all-in for a fleeting double star who should age gracefully if ever confined to hitting.

Everyone wants a piece of Ohtani because even small fragments of him are treasures.

“I’m a little scared to say hi,” Texas Rangers all-star third baseman Josh Jung said.

Jung, a 25-year-old rookie, marvels over Ohtani’s visit to Texas in June. During a four-game series, Ohtani was 7 for 12 at the plate, hit four home runs, walked seven times and drove in eight runs. In the game he pitched, he turned in a quality start, hit a homer and got a win. The Angels took three of four from the Rangers in that series.

“He destroyed us back at our place,” Jung said. “He’s a superstar, man. He was on third base, and I couldn’t really talk to him. It’s pretty cool to just be around him.”

There’s something the modest Ohtani, enveloped in noise, doesn’t experience much anymore: quiet admiration.

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