I’m not old enough to have witnessed what Babe Ruth did on the baseball field (we just missed each other), but I’m pretty sure I know of a couple of things he didn’t do.
I’m pretty sure The Babe never beat out a 114-mph ground ball into a shift, for example, running from home to first in 4.16 seconds. And even if he did (he didn’t), I’m more than pretty sure he didn’t follow it up by stepping to the mound and closing a game with multiple 100-mph pitches, including one that reached 102, before delivering a final-pitch slider that broke like a whiffle ball and made one of the greatest players in baseball history look foolish.
Those kinds of feats are reserved for one man, and one man only, across 151 years of Major League Baseball. It’s what Shohei Ohtani did Tuesday night for Japan in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic — likely the most-watched baseball game in human history (ratings were not available as of this writing).
That included at least a few million people in this country, and for those who weren’t yet convinced that Ohtani is the greatest baseball player of all time, I wonder if they are now. If not, what’s the argument against him? This is like Wayne Gretzky splitting his time in goal and leading the league in save percentage. It’s like Joe Montana doubling as a defensive back and intercepting 10 passes.
It’s so ludicrous, in fact, that I wonder if people even comprehend the reality of Ohtani. It’s almost as if he is something so extraordinary, so surreal and exotic and bizarre, that we cannot quantify him and might even refuse to entertain the idea he is real — like a UFO. And I wonder if that is why he somehow wasn’t a unanimous MVP choice this past season (I don’t care if Aaron Judge hit 100 home runs).
Nobody who fully comprehended the truth of what Ohtani did last season (or last night) could ever vote for somebody else as an “MVP.”
“I’ve analyzed him for years since he’s come over here,” said Team USA manager Mark DeRosa. “What he’s doing in the game is what probably 90 percent of the guys in that clubhouse did in Little League or in youth tournaments. And he’s able to pull it off on the biggest stages. He is a unicorn to the sport. I think other guys will try (to pitch and hit), but I don’t think they’e going to do it to his level.”
What an unexpectedly glorious baseball moment in the middle of March, by the way: Ohtani facing his Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout in a one-run game with two out in the bottom of the ninth.
Ohtani’s final pitch clinched his tournament MVP award. Trout didn’t touch one of the three strikes. Ohtani’s tourney resume is laughable:
—He hit .435 with a .739 slugging percentage and 10 RBIs in seven games, despite tying the tournament record with 10 walks.
—He hit a 448-foot home run (tied for longest of the tournament).
—He went 2-0 with a save as a pitcher, with a 1.86 earned-run average and 11 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings.
—He ran to first base in four seconds.
Nobody in baseball history, in a gathering of some of the greatest players in the game, would have done all that. Not even The Babe, who was only a full-time batter and pitcher in one season (1919). He hit 29 home runs and struck out 30 batters that season, which is historically impressive, except in one context: Ohtani.
This guy has 80 home runs and 375 strikeouts (as a pitcher) the past two seasons. He is the only player baseball history who is at once an elite hitter and pitcher (and have I mentioned that he runs from home to first in 4 seconds?).
As was stated on the FS1 broadcast Tuesday, Ohtani literally throws the ball as hard as Gerrit Cole, hits the ball as hard as Judge and runs as fast Trea Turner, who has twice led the majors in stolen bases.
So what, exactly, is the argument against him as the greatest player of all time?
That he hasn’t won enough? That he hasn’t won a World Series?
Yes, well, neither did Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds, Ichiro, Ken Griffey Jr. or Tony Gwynn. Last I checked, all those guys were one of nine hitters in a lineup, and pitchers throw once every five days. The bottom line is that if you took any player, in his prime, and put him into a game right now, who would be the best player?
Willie Mays? Mickey Mantle? Bonds?
They’d be real good. But can they pitch? More to the point, can they pitch to the point where they lead all major league starters in strikeout rate?
Cy Young? He’d probably throw a complete game (he threw 749 of ’em), but would he hit a 448-foot home run?
That he hasn’t done it long enough? Two years is a long time. If Connor McDavid had played 30 games in goal the past two years and finished top-five in save percentage, would that be a big enough “sample size?”
I love a sports argument as much as the next person. There just isn’t one here.
Baseball’s an individual sport, but one man can only do so much. This isn’t basketball, although a basketball analogy might work best. It’s more of a superhero movie analogy, actually, and sometimes you need a superhero, or a poem, or a cartoon character, to speak to greater truths.
Ohtani’s teammate Lars Nootbaar was asked about him after that ninth inning.
He smiled and said, “It’s like Michael Jordan in SpaceJam.”