From the prime minister to people in the street, Japan yesterday celebrated Shohei Ohtani winning one of US baseball’s top awards with joy, banners and newspaper extras filled with pride at the achievement of one of their own.
Ohtani, 27, with the Los Angeles Angels, won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for the MLB’s American League, becoming only the second Japanese player to do so after Ichiro Suzuki, then with the Seattle Mariners, in 2001.
“I’m proud. He worked hard and showed Japanese presence,” said Minoru Tanaka, 68 and a part-time worker.
Others were even more enthusiastic.
“I’m simply happy, I think it’s amazing,” said office worker Chihiro Nakamura, 36. “I want to keep cheering him on.”
Newspapers handed out extras and the Tokyo Tower was illuminated in the Angels’ colors with a congratulatory message at exactly 17:17, or 5:17pm, to match Ohtani’s jersey number.
City hall workers in Ohtani’s hometown of Oshu, Iwate Prefecture,, gathered in Angels jerseys, cheering and clapping. Later, banners proclaiming the win were hung from Oshu City Hall.
Even Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida joined, telling reporters: “It’s an extraordinary accomplishment and as a Japanese citizen, I feel very proud.”
Ohtani’s popularity stems from his athletic ability and his character, which combines quiet strength and the humbleness Japan respects most in its heroes, said Hirotaka Matsuoka, a sports marketing professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University.
“Ohtani is earnest and humble, so even if he doesn’t say anything, he’s appealing — and he appeals to men, women, young and old,” Matsuoka said.
Although Suzuki was popular, Ohtani goes one better, said Robert Whiting, the author of several books on Japanese baseball.
“He gives Japan a certain status in MLB it has never had before,” he said in remarks made to reporters before the award announcement. “Some people are calling him the best baseball player they’ve ever seen.”
Shares in sporting goods firm Asics rose, while Zett Corp, a little-known sports company whose share price soared in July when Ohtani played in the All-Star game, fell after an initial spike just after the news came out.
Although baseball has lost ground to soccer in Japan in the past few years, Ohtani’s MVP is likely to inspire more to play the game — and more to watch, giving Japanese professional baseball a boost, Matsuoka said.
“After all, who knows when you might be able to see the next Ohtani in a game right here?” he said.
Ohtani’s two-way season was so incredible, MVP voters filled out the top of their ballots only one way.
He was a unanimous winner of the award on Thursday in the US for a hitting and pitching display not seen since Babe Ruth.
Bryce Harper earned the National League honor for the second time.
Ohtani received all 30 first-place votes and 420 points in balloting by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
“American fans, the USA baseball, is more accepting and welcoming to the whole two-way idea compared to when I first started in Japan, so it made the transition a lot easier for me,” Ohtani said through translator Ippei Mizuhara. “I’m very thankful for that.”
Ohtani batted .257 with 46 homers, 100 RBIs and a .965 OPS as the Los Angeles Angels’ full-time designated hitter, and went 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA in 23 pitching starts with 156 strikeouts and 44 walks in 130-1/3 innings.
Additional reporting by AP
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