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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 18: Shohei Ohtani comes to America

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

A lot of Japanese baseball players have made their mark in Major League Baseball in the past couple of decades. Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Masahiro Tanka and Yu Darvish have dominated, dozens of others have starred, and over 100 have made it on to big league rosters over the years. None, however, are quite like Shohei Ohtani, late of the Nippon Ham Fighters.

For one thing, not many of them were scouted by U.S. teams in high school and tempted to eschew Japanese baseball altogether like Ohtani was. He resisted that urge and chose to play in Japan, but it was thought of as only a matter of time before he sought to be posted to play in the United States. The thought was correct, as he’s now U.S.-bound at the age of only 23.

The bigger reason he was not like his predecessors is that his skills are truly unique. Ohtani is known as “The Japanese Babe Ruth” for his prowess as both a pitcher and a hitter. He has a fastball that has hit 102 miles per hour before and he routinely sits in the high 90s. He’s also an outstanding slugger who hits for both power and average. While his 2017 season was truncated due to injuries, in 2016 he posted a 1.86 ERA, struck out 174 guys in 140 innings across 21 games and hit .322/.416/.588 with 27 home runs as a designated hitter. Baseball hasn’t seen a two-way player like that since The Bambino, and even then Ruth gave up pitching after joining the Yankees in 1920, making only five more appearances on the mound after that, mostly as a gimmick or to mop up a mess.

Ohtani, however, has every intention of continuing to both pitch and hit. All of which made his journey to America fairly interesting.

Once he was officially posted by Nippon Ham on December 1, it was reported that Ohtani’s agents had sent a questionnaire to teams interested in signing him, asking them to detail how, exactly, they’d use Ohtani. Only one team — the Mariners — went public in saying that they’d let him pitch while allowing him to DH a couple of times a week. Other teams, anonymously, groused about having to answer the questionnaire, thinking it an insult and/or that Ohtani had already chosen where he wanted to play but was making them jump through hoops anyway. Given that current Collective Bargaining Agreement placed a severe cap on how much Ohtani could be paid, the grousing seemed particularly petty. If you can get an all-world talent for less than the price of a utility infielder, you jump through some hoops at the chance, right?

Ultimately, Ohtani chose the Los Angeles Angels. At the press conference introducing him, manager Mike Scioscia was somewhat vague about how he planned to use Ohtani on days he wasn’t pitching, but said that he definitely intended to allow him to both hit and pitch. We’ll see in a couple of months how, exactly, that will play out.

In the meantime, there continues to be some drama around Ohtani. Soon after his signing, someone with knowledge of his medical information — likely someone who works for a team that was unsuccessful in the Ohtani Sweepstakes and who was suffering from sour grape poisoning — leaked to Yahoo Sports that Ohtani has a partial tear in his elbow ligament. It is thought to be a minor injury and Ohtani is said to be able to pitch at full strength despite the ailment. Major League Baseball is investigating the leak and will likely punish whoever it is who released the confidential medical information.

Until then we wait for mid-February, when Ohtani — and scores of Japanese reporters and photographers — descend on Tempe, Arizona and Angels spring training to see if he can live up to the monumental hype.

Anthony Rendon explains why he didn’t go to the White House

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Today the Angels introduced their newest big star, Anthony Rendon, who just signed a seven-year, $245 million contract to play in Orange County.

And it is Orange County, not Los Angeles, Rendon stressed at the press conference. When asked about the Dodgers, who had also been reported to be courting him, Rendon said he preferred the Angels because, “the Hollywood lifestyle . . . didn’t seem like it would be a fit for us as a family.”

What “the Hollywood Lifestyle” means in that context could mean a lot of things I suppose. It could be about the greater media scrutiny Dodgers players are under compared to Angels players. It could mean that he’d simply prefer to live in Newport Beach than, I dunno, wherever Dodgers players live. Pasadena? Pasadena is more convenient to Dodger Stadium than the beach. Who knows. They never did let Yasiel Puig get that helicopter he wanted, so traffic could’ve been a consideration.

But maybe it’s a subtle allusion to political/cultural stuff. Orange County has trended to the left in some recent elections but it is, historically speaking, a conservative stronghold in Southern California. And, based on something else he said in his press conference, Rendon seems to be pretty conscious of geographical/political matters:

A shoutout to the notion of Texas being Trump country and an askance glance at “the Hollywood Lifestyle” of Los Angeles all in the same press conference. That’s a lot of culture war ground covered in one press conference. So much so that I can’t decide if I should warn Rendon that both Texas and Orange County are trending leftward or if I should tell him to stick to sports.