Before Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani ascended to become one of the best players in baseball and perhaps the most unique player in the history of the sport, he was a Japanese phenom. There is no one who understands Ohtani’s upward trajectory like Ichiro Suzuki, who once made a similar leap from Japan to MLB.
While Ohtani needed three years of adjustment time before his full breakout and MVP season, Suzuki didn’t need any. The Seattle Mariners superstar won MVP in his first Major League season, making him more qualified than anybody to help in the development of Ohtani.
During Ohtani’s rookie year — and Suzuki’s 18th — the two met for dinner to discuss any number of topics. For Ohtani — who grew up idolizing Suzuki — the experience was admittedly a surprising one, according to Daniel Riley of GQ:
“Growing up,” Shohei says, “Ichiro was for me the way that I think some kids, some people, look at me today. Like I’m a different species. Larger than life. He was a superstar in Japan. He had this charisma about him. But once I actually met him, and went to dinner with him, he was much closer to an average guy—which was kind of surprising.”
Ohtani proceeded to reveal advice that was given to him during that dinner by possibly the best player to ever make the transition from Japan to MLB.
“But he basically told me: ‘Remember to be yourself. You made it this far being yourself, so don’t change that, stay within yourself.’ And I kind of had to think about that. I’m the type of person who’s always modifying a little bit, a little tweak in form here and there, always changing. Which kind of contradicts with what Ichiro was saying. But as I’ve really thought about it over the last few years, I’ve realized that that’s me, that’s who I am—actually changing stuff around.”
Ohtani’s first four years with the Angels have been defined by tweaks and changes to his game. His rookie year, he and the Angels agreed on a severely limiting plan, keeping his pitch count and his at-bat count as low as possible to prevent injury.
He still performed well enough to win rookie of the year, but was met with Tommy John surgery in the offseason. After pitching just 2.0 innings over the next two seasons, Ohtani had to adjust at the plate to justify being the team’s full-time designated hitter.
By year four, he was finally able to put it all together. And while the path he took to get there was slightly unconventional, he used Suzuki’s words to motivate him the whole way.
Ohtani wins AP Male Athlete of the Year
As a final tribute to his 2021 campaign, Ohtani was given the AP Male Athlete of the Year award. The honor served as a perfect send off to one of the greatest individual seasons in MLB history. And Ohtani remains confident in his ability to repeat that production in 2022.