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The Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani is a talented hitter and pitcher

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The last time a Major League Baseball player has come close to hitting and pitching as well as Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani has in the same season was legendary icon Babe Ruth over a hundred years ago. That's when he was still a member of the Red Sox. That's how unprecedented Ohtani's career has been so far. NPR's Anthony Kuhn traced Ohtani's roots back to northern Japan and reports on some of the people and places that contributed to his rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF HITTING BASEBALL)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Ohtani's former Little League team, the Mizusawa Pirates, warm up at a weekend practice. Mizusawa is Ohtani's hometown in northern Japan's Iwate prefecture. He played here between the ages of 8 and 14. Coach Shoji Asari remembers how Ohtani, who bats left-handed, often homered over the right field fence and into a river. He says the cost of the lost baseballs began to add up.

SHOJI ASARI: (Through interpreter) So I jokingly told him, don't pull your hits, Shohei. He shot me a dagger-like look and then hit his next homer to left field. I think that was when he found the fun of opposite field hitting.

KUHN: That skill has served Ohtani well, including in this game against the Texas Rangers last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And Ohtani with a drive - left field, hit well. This ball is deep. Jankowski's back, and it's gone. Shohei has given the Angels the lead.

KUHN: But it was obvious early on that Ohtani wasn't just a talented hitter. He pitched blazing fastballs and baffling sliders that were hard to hit. They were also very hard to catch. One person who found that out was Ryuki Sasaki (ph), Ohtani's catcher in high school.

RYUKI SASAKI: (Through interpreter) I had never caught a ball from a pitcher who could throw it more than 87 miles per hour. Also, his slider curves too much, and my body couldn't react in time. In the beginning, I couldn't catch his pitches at all.

KUHN: Coach Asari is pleased at how his former player is doing in the U.S., but he doesn't take any credit for it.

ASARI: (Through interpreter) He made it big all due to his own efforts. We had nothing to do with it. Look at this place. There is really nothing here. He just came here to practice, and he looked like he was really having fun.

KUHN: Asari is not just being modest. He says that for his team, having fun is more important than winning. That's unusual, says Nobuya Kobayashi, a sports journalist and author of a book about Ohtani. He says that in Japan, Little Leaguers hone their skills by doing repetitive drills.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: In Mizusawa, the kids practice catching runners in one rundown after another. The drills are great for technique, says Kobayashi, but they're not much fun.

NOBUYA KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) Most Japanese baseball players train hard how to play, suppress their own feelings, be patient and practice exactly as their coach says. But Coach Asari let his players grow freely. So Ohtani has continued to enjoy baseball the whole time.

KUHN: Kobayashi says that anyone who has ever had fun playing baseball as a kid will be reminded of it when they see Ohtani play. Catcher Ryuki Sasaki says that Ohtani's love of baseball is one thing about him that has not changed.

SASAKI: (Through interpreter) No matter what the results are for him, his team's victory simply makes him happy. I think even now, he plays with the mind of an elementary school kid who loves baseball.

KUHN: Ohtani is famous for his double-sword style, or nitoryu (ph). That's what Japanese call double-threat players who excel at both pitching and hitting. Lots of kids in Japan do it in Little League, but not in pro baseball. Nobuya Kobayashi says Ohtani insisted on doing both in Japan's pro leagues, despite the objections of most teams.

KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) To the Japanese way of thinking, it was impossible. There's an atmosphere in Japanese society that rejects people who try to do something different. So Japanese society didn't want a special person like Ohtani.

KUHN: Last year, Major League Baseball made it a rule that a pitcher can still bat as designated hitter, even after being relieved on the mound. It's called the Ohtani rule. So Ohtani has rewritten the rules of the game and the terms on which he plays by force of his extraordinary talent. But the question in some observers' minds is, how long can he keep it up? Coach Asari doubts that the double-sword style is sustainable in the long term.

ASARI: (Through interpreter) It's up to the kids. But really, it's impossible. Even in America, only Babe Ruth could do it. You'd better not do it. You could get injured.

KUHN: Kobayashi worries that Ohtani has prioritized power, bulked up too much and could get hurt. Ohtani has admitted feeling some fatigue this season, but far from burning out, he leads the major leagues in home runs with 24 so far this season.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Mizusawa, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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