Since the last time he came to Seattle in late April, Shohei Ohtani has become a true baseball sensation. No one has ever seen his simultaneous combination of pitching prowess and hitting dominance — not even from his most common comparable, Babe Ruth.
“Wow. Ohtani is in a class by himself,” Vin Scully tweeted Thursday after Ohtani’s typically majestic 32nd home run — but what does Scully know about baseball history? He’s been around the game for only seven decades.
As Ohtani arrives in town Friday with the Angels for a three-game series that will lead into the All-Star break — an event that has turned into the Ohtani Appreciation and Wonder Tour — the Mariners can’t help but ponder what might have been.
In an alternate universe, Ohtani could have been theirs, a notion that’s as maddening as it is intriguing. Would a two-way player of that caliber, added to a veteran Seattle team that even without him would go on to win 89 games in 2018 (nine more than Ohtani’s Angels), have altered the Mariners’ decision to tear apart the team and rebuild? Would their ongoing 19-year playoff drought no longer be ongoing?
For a full year, in anticipation that Ohtani was ready to jump from the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to MLB after the 2017 season, the Mariners laid the groundwork for an all-out pursuit.
He became the obsession of general manager Jerry Dipoto, who took a scouting trip to Japan to watch Ohtani play and dubbed him internally as “Roy Hobbs.” Dipoto vowed on the very first episode of his podcast, The Wheelhouse, that the Mariners were going all-out to get it done.
“We’re bringing the big guns,” he said. “We’re bringing the ‘A’ game.”
Once Ohtani “posted,” the convoluted process by which Japanese players make the move across the Pacific, the Mariners were one of seven teams to make the first cut. The others were the Angels and Rangers from the American League and the Dodgers, Giants, Padres and Cubs from the National League.
Looking back now, both Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have no regrets about their recruiting process, nor do they begrudge Ohtani for his decision, devastating as it was at the time, to go to Anaheim.
In fact, count them both among the multitudes who are dazzled and amazed by Ohtani. How can you not be, when you’re talking about someone who this year threw a 101-mph pitch and hit a 450-foot home run — in the same inning! It’s no hyperbole when former Mariners pitcher Anthony Bass, Ohtani’s teammate on the Fighters, called him “a 10-tool player.”
“I’ve only spent one day of my life with Shohei,” Dipoto said Wednesday, referring to the face-to-face meeting with Ohtani on Dec. 4, 2017 at the Los Angeles office of his agent, Nez Balelo, when the Mariners contingent passionately made its case.
“But I did get a chance to scout him, and he’s awesome,” Dipoto said. “I mean, the things he’s able to do on a baseball field are fascinating. It’s a shame he had to go through the injury (Tommy John elbow surgery late in 2018 that curtailed his pitching until this year) and all that. I wish he wasn’t in our division and we didn’t have to see him 19 times, but he’s one of the most talented baseball players I’ve ever seen. And if you consider what he does on the mound and in the batter’s box, he’s maybe THE most talented player.
“There’s no one else that can do those things. I came back from the experience of having watched him do both in Japan, and when you’re writing up scouting reports, you’re constantly trying to draw comparisons. I can’t really draw a comparison for a player who does these things, because like you’re seeing now, he has a chance to be an All-Star as a hitter and a pitcher, and that’s an incredibly rare thing. It’s not a projection chance. Just let him play, and he’s going to do those things.
“It’s amazing, and it’s amazing he’s able to do it and sustain on both ends. I can’t imagine how hard that is. It was hard enough for me to do one, only marginally well. So what he’s doing is fascinating. And I’m sure that anybody that’s ever watched baseball feels the same way.”
Reflecting on their efforts to land Ohtani, Dipoto said, “We poured it out. We poured it out, everything from our (recruiting) pitch to our heart. And it didn’t work out for us. That’s the way it goes. He made a decision that worked for him and his family at the time. I’ve never begrudged anybody a decision.
“I hope he has a long and great career. It’s certainly shaping up that way. This year’s been phenomenal to watch. It’s fun. I’m hoping it’s not quite as fun to watch him this weekend. But we’ll get beyond that. Hopefully he’s saving some for the All-Star Game.”
In trying to sway Ohtani, the Mariners played up their long history of success with Japanese players such as Ichiro, Kaz Sasaki, Hisashi Iwakuma and others, which some believe may have worked to their detriment. The thought is that Ohtani wanted to carve his own niche in a place he would be a Japanese pioneer.
But it’s hard to know what exactly made Ohtani choose the Angels, because he has not revealed his reason except in generalities. In his statement announcing Ohtani’s choice, agent Balelo said, “While there has been much speculation about what would drive Shohei’s decision, what mattered to him most wasn’t market size, time zone or league but that he felt a true bond with the Angels.”
Servais, who was in the room when the Mariners pleaded their case, was convinced that Ohtani would feel that “true bond” with the Mariners. He said everyone involved — from Dipoto to the ownership group to the marketing department, which helped with the bells and whistles of their presentation — did everything they could to make it happen.
“Certainly, with the success we’ve had with a number of Japanese players that have played here, I thought we were positioned about as well as we could be,” Servais said. “Going through that whole process, you learn a lot. You learn about the player, the person you’re recruiting.
“You also learn a lot about the people you’re recruiting with. And I can honestly say I’ve never felt better about the Mariners and where we were at and how we presented ourselves. We could not have done a better job. I really thought he was headed our way.”
Instead, Ohtani was headed to their division rival, where he continues to do jaw-dropping things for an Angels team that continues to wallow out of contention. That’s despite having not only Ohtani but also the perennially brilliant (but currently injured) Mike Trout.
Whatever wistfulness the Mariners might still have about not landing Ohtani is matched by their awe at someone who is on pace for 60 home runs, leads the majors with a .700 slugging percentage (and with four bunt hits), and, oh yeah, throws the most unhittable pitch in the majors (opponents are batting just .083 against his splitter).
“It’s unquestionably good for baseball,” Dipoto said. “I’ve always been a baseball fan before anything else, and I think it’s awesome what he’s doing, and the fact it does create so much intrigue. I watch every night.”