It is the 17th day of the month, which means Ohtani Day in Oshu again.
“He wears number 17 for the Angels,” said Katsuyoshi Ohkoshi, the assistant manager of city promotion in Oshu, which is Shohei Ohtani’s hometown in Iwate prefecture, Japan. “So, every month on the 17th is Ohtani Day.”
Ohkoshi serves as the executive officer of the Ohtani Shohei Senshu Furasato Oendan, which translates to “Shohei Ohtani Hometown Cheering Team.” The group was founded in 2018 and nearly 200 companies and organizations in Oshu take part. Even the mayor is in on it.
“Just to avoid any misunderstandings, I want to mention that this group is not directly affiliated with Ohtani,” Ohkoshi said on the phone. “We cheer for Ohtani as much as we can — but not to the point of bothering him.”
Ohtani was born in the city of Mizusawa, which in 2006 merged with other municipalities to form Oshu. Oshu has a population of about 115,000.
“His parents are here, and this is his hometown,” Ohkoshi said. “So before doing anything, we contact Ohtani’s parents or people who have a connection to him and ask if it is okay to do this or that.
“I’ve been active in this for about three years, but I haven’t talked to Ohtani yet. That is embarrassing. But Ohtani is doing well, so as his hometown. I repeat again, we want to support him, but not bother him.”
At baseball games in Japan, oendan, or cheering sections, are similar to American cheerleading squads and can be counted upon to energetically support their teams from the stands with ongoing, organized noise from drums, horns, chants and more. The Ohtani oendan in Oshu cheers in their own quiet way by wearing the same T-shirts on the 17th of each month.
“It sounds funny to say ‘official,’ but we have red T-shirts, Angels T-shirts with a number 17 that a sports store made,” said Ohkoshi.
“We wear them while working. It might be a bit odd, but in that way, we support him and cheer for him. We express our feelings that way. We at City Hall are doing that, and other places around town such as banks wear the same red shirts. Plus, we had enough in the budget to have banners made. … We also had original posters made, and we got permission from Ohtani for that. It helps warm things up.”
The Los Angeles Angels star designated hitter and pitcher has been giving the group plenty to cheer about this season. Ohtani, 26, took the major leagues by storm early in the season as the first player since Babe Ruth to hit in the daily lineup while also starring on the pitcher’s mound. Through June 28, Ohtani led MLB in home runs with 26 while batting .276 with a team-leading 60 RBI (third in MLB). He is slugging .670 with a 1.031 OPS. On the mound, Ohtani’s fastball routinely reaches 100 mph and he is 3-1 with a 2.58 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 59.1 innings as the Angels’ top starter.
Updates on Ohtani’s home run count and other batting and pitching statistics are big news in Japan and are posted on a sign on the first floor of Oshu City Hall.
The year that the cheering group was established, an event was held to talk about the hometown hero, and Ohkoshi hopes to do more of this kind of thing down the road.
“There is an author who wrote a book about Ohtani, so we invited him as a speaker. Ohtani was not there, but nostalgic pictures of him were shown and people who were a part of his life gave speeches,” Ohkoshi said.
Shohei may not be around now, but visitors to Oshu can at least shake his hand — a traditional Iwate cast-iron replica of his hand, that is. Sachiko Konarita, who works in the Oshu Tourist Information Center, said there is one near the train station.
Konarita recommended visitors traveling to Oshu in the summers of 2018 and 2019 go view some rice field art of Ohtani made with rice plants of different colors. Subjects chosen for the art are “people or things that are the hot topic that year,” Konarita said. “There’s no entrance fee. Just climb up the hill to the wooden observation tower.”
Next to pictures of Ohtani the word orahono was written in the fields, followed by a star. Konarita explained that orahono, in the Iwate accent, means “our,” or in Ohtani’s case, “our star.”
Nobuo Miyake serves as Executive Director of the Rice Field Art Committee. He said that a 3/4-acre field and a 1/4-acre field are used for the art.
“In 2018, it was Ohtani as a pitcher and also as a batter, and two rice fields close to each other were used,” Miyake said. “In 2019, he had surgery on his arm. So that year it was only as a batter.”
Miyake said that visitors included youth baseball teams, elementary and junior-high school groups, and “men and women of all ages, from all over the country.”
“Ohtani is a hero to the world, a hero of Iwate, and hero of Japan,” Miyake said.
A STAR IS BORN
Ohtani was already becoming known throughout Japan when he was in high school, particularly when he was throwing serious heat in Japan’s outrageously popular annual summer baseball tournament.
Micah Hoffpauir, who after the 2010 season left the Chicago Cubs to join the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan, first witnessed the phenom while watching the national tournament on television with his teammates in Japan.
“We were watching that and everybody kept talking about this kid, this Ohtani kid, you know, Shohei, Shohei, whatever,” Hoffpauir said from Texas.
“Everybody always said, he’s never going to end up in Japan. He’s going straight to the States. Even our interpreter was like, ‘No, he’s not going to play in Japan. He’s already told everybody, no, don’t draft me. I’m not playing in Japan. I’m going straight to the States.’ Which, obviously, he probably could have. He was pretty impressive.
“And I remember our interpreter telling us that the Fighters were going to take a chance. They were going to send our manager, Kuriyama-san, to speak with him and just kind of give him a little bit of an idea of what they would like for him to do, and maybe get him to sign or whatever. Obviously, whatever he said kind of worked, I suppose, because he came and played.”
Long-time baseball and Yomiuri Giants fan Yuji Itoh gives a lot of credit to Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama for pursuing and signing Ohtani.
“He was patient enough to continue to say, please come to my team,” said Itoh, who graduated from the same university as Kuriyama in Tokyo. “He was great in a sense that he showed Shohei a plan for him to be a two-way player. …Then, he was very interested in the plan. That’s why he became a member of the team. I think Shohei is going to be a great baseball player because of the manager’s help.”
Itoh explained that the majority of teams and fans in Japan thought that when Ohtani went pro he should choose, or would soon choose, to be either a batter or a pitcher. Others considered the two-way thing good only for entertainment value.
“There were very few people who believed he would be a two-way player,” Itoh said. “The manager Kuriyama was one of them. He really believed.”
In any case, plenty were intrigued when Shohei joined the Fighters in 2013.
“I remember going into spring training and it being an absolute circus,” said Hoffpauir, who played in Japan from 2011-13. “My first year, [pitching phenom] Yuki Saito was the big rage in Japan and the cameras, reporters and everything were pretty crazy with him, but nothing like Ohtani. Ohtani, it was just a madhouse. And they told us that when we got there, that when he shows up, it’s going to go nuts.”
Hoffpauir remembers he and some other veterans hearing an unusual sound during a 2013 spring training practice.
“You kept hearing this whack on the field, and we all thought, what is doing that?” Hoffpauier said. “He just sounded different. And we came out onto the field to see who was hitting, and it was Shohei. He was putting on a pretty good display. And of course, at this time he’s still 18, maybe just 19 years old.
“He’s a hard-working dude,” Hoffpauir added. “The ball just jumped out of his hand. It didn’t matter where he was at. Playing the outfield, or if he was pitching, the ball just absolutely jumped out of his hand. He’s just a one-of-a-kind athlete, man. You just don’t see that every day.”
There have been many great professionals in Japanese baseball history, but according to Itoh, Ohtani, who is 6-4 and 210 pounds, stood out in that once he got going with the Fighters he was considered to be a major league superstar waiting to happen.
“Everybody thought he would be a great player in the United States,” Itoh said. “He is tall and big, but supple and pliable. That’s why he is going to be a great player, I suppose. He’s quick, and fast even in running. … Oh, do you know he blasted a home run today, too?”
That was his 10th home run of the season, which came on May 6 (May 7 in Japan), not long after Ohtani became the first player since what’s-his-name to start a game pitching while leading the league in homers.
“100 years ago, Babe Ruth … ” Itoh said with a laugh. “That’s exciting, right?”
— SCD contributor Matt Bosch lives in Japan and went to his first professional baseball game in Japan 20 years ago and has been a fan ever since. He teaches at a university in Japan and enjoys researching and writing about Japanese baseball."
For more on Shohei Ohtani and his hottest-selling baseball cards, check out the July 1 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.