After scandalous winter, can Shohei Ohtani's pure talent brighten baseball?

Tim Brown
MLB columnist
Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani will once again attempt to perform as a two-way player in 2020, with his recovery from injury set to allow him to return to pitching in mid-May. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — But a few lockers from where Shohei Ohtani will start over as the game’s unique talent, Andrew Heaney on Wednesday morning was trying to put to words the full, end-to-end game Ohtani will be returning to.

Roundabout, what Heaney was getting to in a scorching assessment of the Houston Astros’ behavior and a sport so eager to chase artificial advantages: Let’s find out who’s best at baseball.

Can we do that again?

“I think that somebody in that locker room had to have enough insight to say, like, ‘This is not alright. This is not OK,’ ” Heaney said. “I haven’t read all the latest [stuff] that everybody’s writing about. I don’t know how much is true. What I’m saying is, somebody in that locker room had to say, ‘This is [effed] up. And we shouldn’t be doing it.’ For nobody to stand up and say, ‘We’re treating other players like that,’ it sucks. It’s a [crappy] feeling for everybody. I hope they feel like [crap].”

He didn’t say crappy or crap. He spoke like a pitcher with a five-plus ERA in Houston, one who no longer thought he deserved it after spending a lot of time assuming he did. Like a player raised in a time of dark arts when all he ever wanted to do was spot a fastball on the outer half, then live with what came of that.

Just baseball.

“That’d be great,” he said.

Shohei Ohtani begins ‘a new chapter’

Those few lockers away, Ohtani, thicker through his chest and shoulders than in past seasons, gathered himself for season three here. He’ll hit again, of course, and pitch again starting in May, and retake his place as the purest ballplayer in the world. He plays the entirety of the game, which seemed odd or fantastical until he hit 22 home runs and struck out 11 batters per nine in 2018, and now it is expected, the result of his own brushstrokes of elegance and humility.

You can fear for the game — the adults who run it, the billionaires who turn a profit from it, the technology that lacquers it over, the rules that rush it along. You can wish it back to what it was, before each participant was stamped with a number that attested to his value to the tenth of something called a win, and before the unintended consequences of a forward-leaning age birthed the filth of a once-a-century scandal.

But, given it is spring, given that someday soon there will be a story that comes with a hustle double or a goofy hop or, imagine, a guy who throws seven innings one night and bangs out three hits the next, it’s probably best to hope for some good and enjoy what there is.

“This,” Ohtani said, “is going to be a new chapter, a new challenge, for me.”

Joe Maddon, former World Series-winning skipper of the Chicago Cubs, was introduced as the Angels manager in October. He will be Shohei Ohtani's third manager in three big league seasons. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Joe Maddon stepped from the clubhouse into the morning sun. He pointed to a large hill beyond the left-field fence, called it Mount Mickey. Years ago, when they were together on Mike Scioscia’s coaching staff, Mickey Hatcher would start his mornings with a golf club and a ball and a tee. He’d take aim, waggle, and put one more ball on that hill, maybe a few hundred yards away.

“He could really hit a golf ball,” Maddon said.

Will Joe Maddon unleash two-way Ohtani?

What comes of the 25-year-old Ohtani is on Maddon’s watch now, a year after it was Brad Ausmus’ watch, two after Scioscia’s. The Los Angeles Angels have become a maze of lanes. Maddon seems less inclined to be quite so protective of Ohtani, assuming Ohtani’s full recovery from Tommy John surgery. And so he wondered if Ohtani couldn’t hit on nights he pitched, or if he’d be capable of DH-ing more often. He raised an eyebrow when it was suggested Major League Baseball should rewrite the rule book and allow him to DH for whatever position he wanted, further freeing Ohtani to hit in American League games in which he pitched.

The details will come. The broader part to this, one that Maddon has come back to in recent years, is simply playing the game. Unplug the clubhouse, put a foot in the ground and play the game. Show him the numbers. He’ll show you a guy he’d like to have play for him. Sometimes they’ll agree. Not always.

“You need to keep an eye on it,” he said, “because part of it is, this game is so wonderful the way it’s been born and bred and raised. I think part of the disenchantment with fans sometimes is the fact that we are getting to all these different elements that weren’t intended.”

The same suspicions reside within the game, that it’s become an unrecognizable haze of dark and darker arts, and the darker it gets the more humanity is stripped away, and pretty soon there’ll hardly be any room for a guy who wants to throw this fastball to that mitt and maybe can’t do it every time. And pretty soon we’ll forget that the whole reason we play and watch is because once in a while a guy like Shohei Ohtani shows up who doesn’t fit anywhere, because he fits everywhere.

All anyone wants is to find out who’s best at baseball. It’d be good to have that back. 

Heaney considered that. Yes, that would be good, he said. Yes, that’s the goal.

“I think they still have a lot of work to do,” he said.

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