The time the Red Sox thought they had landed Shohei Ohtani

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Shohei Ohtani will face off against the Boston Red Sox tonight in Anaheim. In honor of the occasion, Rob Bradford of relates the tale of the time the Sox thought they had a good chance to sign the Japanese star. Not this past offseason, but back when Ohtani was in high school.

It’s unheard of for a Japanese high school player to forego playing in Japan and, instead, come to the United States as an international free agent. But Ohtani strongly considered it and even threw a bullpen session for Red Sox scouts. For the Red Sox part, then-general manager Ben Cherington gave his people the green light to sign him at any cost and to promise Ohtani that they would let him remain a two-way player.

Ultimately, however, Ohtani chose to stay in Japan. Bradford says that, in addition to loyalty to Japanese baseball, a campaign by the Nippon Ham Fighters which emphasized “the long bus rides, the sparse crowds, even the lack of Japanese restaurants” in the U.S. minor leagues helped carry the day.

I wonder whether the Red Sox would’ve carried through with any promise to allow Ohtani to remain a two-way player, even though that was apparently a requirement of his then, as now. Based on the quotes in the article, the Sox were clearly more interested in him as a pitcher. What would’ve happened when he was 18 or 19, playing for the Lowell Spinners or someone, and he went 3-for-20 over a few games and then had a bad start on the mound? My guess is that the club would’ve taken at-bats away and would’ve told him to concentrate on pitching only.

The Sox wouldn’t have done that because they lack vision or anything. They would’ve done it because, until very recently, Major League Baseball teams have not done the two-way player thing. There are a ton of guys who come out of high school here who are excellent pitchers and hitters, but with only a few exceptions that, I do not expect to last, they are not allowed to do both. Why? because the conventional wisdom has been that it cannot be done, and because baseball’s lifeblood is conventional wisdom.

That Ohtani is doing it American now is a function of him proving that he could do it at the highest level of the second best professional league on Earth. If he didn’t have that on his resume, I don’t feel like he would’ve been allowed to continue to do it into his 20s. At least not unless he was utterly dominant right out of the gate, which was by no means assured. And it would not have been on his resume if the Nippon Ham Fighters hadn’t done something no Major League team would’ve ever considered at the time.

Either way, it’s an interesting read.