If you follow baseball, social media or the news in any capacity, you probably have heard of the Major League Baseball’s rookie phenom, Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani — MLB’s first two-way player since Babe Ruth. Only one week into the season, Ohtani sported a wins above replacement of 1.000, hit homers in three consecutive games as a designated hitter and then pitched seven perfect innings the next day.
Sportswriters and fans alike have collectively lost their minds over the Japanese rookie, proclaiming no amount of over-exaggerating is unwarranted for Ohtani and deeming him the next Ruth. They have declared they were wrong during his horrendous spring training performance; to them, Ohtani is undoubtedly, even after one short week, every bit the star everyone hoped he would be.
Logically, a week’s worth of performance is hardly an accurate metric for measuring the success of any athlete. The headlines are so flashy that no one — myself included — wants to be the party-crasher who writes about how Ohtani cannot possibly have already locked down a Hall of Fame spot after only one week.
Rather, I’d like to draw our attention to one accomplishment Ohtani’s success may be pioneering — a new approach to making baseball fun again.
Ohtani is similar to Ruth in his ability to create a media frenzy: After all, Ruth was probably the first huge baseball personality in MLB history who combined an outlandish personality with indescribable talent.
Ruth was one of the first athletes to hire a public relations agent and one of the first prominent multi-endorsement athletes. He pioneered the larger-than-life, deified sports persona by sharing his childhood history, interacting with young fans and playing the game with an outward passion that many other stars, such as Joe DiMaggio, lacked.
Where Ohtani and Ruth differ, however, is that neither Ohtani’s personality nor his public life have fueled his instant stardom. In the public persona department, Ruth has more in common with Bryce Harper or Javier Baez than he does with Ohtani.
Harper, for example, was the face of the 2016 “Make Baseball Fun Again” movement. Outspoken, outwardly confident young players like him were supposed to make baseball more celebratory and lighthearted and encourage it to engage with social media. However, Harper’s movement was stunted by controversial on-field actions, from showboating to publicizing arguments with other players.
Since Harper, there have been many other attempts to make baseball fun again: The Baez “I’ll do what I want” mentality, the bat flip frenzy and even the mentality of the humble, lovable home-run machine Aaron Judge have all offered vehicles for making baseball fun.
But the effort has been to no avail: In fact, baseball is so not fun that Commissioner Rob Manfred has taken it upon himself to reinvent the pace of the game to in an attempt to draw new fans in a way the players couldn’t.
Ohtani might be changing that fact.
Ohtani, besides his stellar on-field abilities, possesses none of the qualities previously thought to be the key ingredients for a “fun” player. He has neither extravagantly coiffed hair nor a unique media persona. He is soft-spoken and only exerts emotion in the form of a few well-placed fist pumps and curtain calls.
In fact, almost nothing has been written about Ohtani off the field at all. Unlike any of the players charged with making baseball fun, from Ruth in the 1920s who helped make baseball fun in the first place to Harper in the 2010s who attempted to bring that spark back, Ohtani has created a media frenzy surrounding his on-field ability alone — with no mention of his personality whatsoever.
Moreover, Ohtani is drawing insurmountable baseball intrigue to the Los Angeles Angels — a feat not even superstar Mike Trout has accomplished.
Perhaps the formula to make baseball fun again consists of players who are accomplishing something new and exciting on the field.
Because of the code of unwritten rules players are taught beginning in their little league years, MLB will never have the flamboyant dramatics of the NBA or even the off-field fields of the NFL; the Lou Gehrig vs. Ruth and Derek Jeter vs. Alex Rodriguez feuds being two rare exceptions.
Rather than making its players into something they are not, MLB should focus on marketing the plentiful on-field accomplishments.
Human interest stories and strong personalities are always a great way to connect fan bases to players. But what might truly make baseball fun again a focus on the players whose on-field successes speak for themselves.
Move over, Harper.