DENVER (AP) — As five dozen All-Stars sat outside Coors Field ahead of the All-Star Game, they looked forward to the Greatest Sho on Earth.
Shohei Ohtani is the starriest of them all, the center of attention for players and fans like no one before at baseball’s midsummer classic.
Fans cheered when he was introduced Monday at a news conference located outdoors, across the street from Coors Field due to the pandemic. He competed in Monday night’s Home Derby and will start on the mound for the American League in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game and hit leadoff as the designated hitter.
Ohtani is doing just about everything other than mow the grass and solve the ballpark’s mile-high hitter-friendly air currents.
“People always say, ‘Oh no, he can’t do that,’ until the guy goes out and does it,” said Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who won his second straight derby. “And then, when he does do it, it’s like, ‘Oh, we knew it the whole time.’”
A 27-year-old in his fourth major league season with the Los Angeles Angels, Ohtani will be the first two-way starter in the history of the All-Star Game, which began in 1933. Not even Babe Ruth did it, having last pitched regularly in 1919.
Ohtani was separately voted to start at DH by fans and to be among five AL starting pitchers by fellow players.
“I was actually not expecting to be chosen as a pitcher at all,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “It’s a huge honor, and I’m going to try my best.”
Washington’s Max Scherzer, who will become just the sixth pitcher to make four All-Star starts, is in the background because of Ohtani, who leads the majors with 33 home runs and is 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA in 13 starts.
“It would be awesome if I can hit. Right now, I’m 0-for the first half this year,” said Scherzer, who is hitless in 30 at-bats.
Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said he, like others, was pushed at a young age to choose between being a pitcher or position player.
Freeman was astounded back on April 4, when Ohtani pitched a hitless first inning against the Chicago White Sox, homered in the bottom half and went back out to the mound for the second.
“I don’t understand how the brain can flip flop from, ‘I’ve got to get three outs and then I’ve got to go and score a run for myself,’” Freeman said. “Any time he’s on the field, you’re just amazed that he has the energy — the mental energy — to handle all that, because I watch the guys when they pitch, the game-planning that goes on before the games, and he’s game-planning and then having to hit batting practice in the cage.”
“He’s got like literally a 12-hour day every day. And then when he pitches, then you have to do your arm care the next day, you got to get all the lactic acid out out of your body. And then you’ve still got to DH at night,” he said.
Major League Baseball altered the rules for Tuesday to allow Ohtani to essentially be two players. When he is replaced on the mound, he can remain as the DH.
“I think we would all respect what he’s done and meant to our game this year. This is what the fans want to see. It’s personally what I wanted to see,” said AL manager Kevin Cash of Tampa Bay. “And to have the opportunity to do something that’s a generational talent, is pretty special. I begged Major League Baseball to tweak the rule.”
Freeman was a two-way player in high school who threw in the mid-90 mph range, and most teams in 2007 wanted him as a pitcher, except the Braves and Chicago Cubs. He remembers the difficulty even at that level.
“My elbow was killing me,” he said.
San Diego third baseman Manny Machado cracked a smile when asked about his two-way talent: “I got rocked when I was 18 years old, and that’s the last time I ever pitched.”
Washington outfielder Juan Soto became a full-time position player at age 15 when told by coaches they were impressed with his hitting.
“I threw no-hitter and everything in Little League, but I don’t know if I can do it in the big leagues,” he said.
Signed at a relatively bargain price of $3 million this year and $5.5 million next season, Ohtani will be eligible for salary arbitration after 2022. If he keeps at this pace, he raises the prospect of commanding double the usual price heading into his final season before free agency, perhaps $30 million to $40 million or more.
Baltimore first baseman Trey Mancini was on the mound, too — once upon a time.
“Dylan Bundy hit a home run off of me my senior year of high school in my last pitching performance,” he said of his future Orioles teammate.