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Why People Call Shohei Ohtani A 'Once In A Century' Baseball Player

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tonight's Major League All-Star Game features the best players in baseball, but the buzz is about one in particular - Shohei Ohtani of the LA Angels - 27 years old, native of Japan, very much challenging traditional notions about the game. He is the rare player who both pitches and hits and does both really well. He currently leads the majors in home runs and is 4 and 1 as a starting pitcher. His two-way exploits are drawing comparisons to Babe Ruth. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: When the Los Angeles Angels introduced newly signed Shohei Ohtani in 2017, then-manager Mike Scioscia had to catch himself when talking about Ohtani's two-way skills.

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MIKE SCIOSCIA: His ability, both on the mound and in the batter's box, is something that doesn't come along...

GOLDMAN: Very often is what Scioscia almost said.

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SCIOSCIA: It really never comes along.

GOLDMAN: At least not since the early 20th century in Major League Baseball, when Babe Ruth did two-way duty quite well for the Boston Red Sox. Several players in the Negro Leagues also did both. Now along comes Shohei Ohtani. He honed his dual skills in Japanese pro ball and vowed to continue when he joined the Angels. His first few seasons in LA were limited because of injury, but now Ohtani has unleashed his two-pronged attack.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: The next two to home (ph). Oh, he's going to get to jog around the bases. He did it again. He's a beast (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Seven strikeouts for Shohei Ohtani tonight.

GOLDMAN: At the all-star break, he's got 87 strikeouts to go with the league leading 33 home runs and a growing legion of headshaking fans.

RICK ANKIEL: I think it's absolutely amazing.

GOLDMAN: Rick Ankiel isn't just any amazed observer. In his 11-year Major League career, he was the closest link between Ruth and Ohtani. He pitched and was a regular hitter as an outfielder, only not at the same time. Still, Ankiel crafted both skills, and he marvels at how Ohtani's done it so well - particularly hitting, where he says Ohtani can smack almost anything in the strike zone.

ANKIEL: Yeah, just the ability to have power throughout all quadrants of the zone - up, down, in, out, it doesn't matter. Just seems like, you know, not only can he get to the balls, but he has a good idea of what guys are trying to do to him also.

GOLDMAN: The consensus is Ohtani is more advanced with his hitting and has to develop more as a pitcher, even though he throws a variety of pitches, including a 100 mph plus fastball. Staying injury-free is critical to the success of this experiment, which is challenging the norm of specialization and the risk-averse micromanaging tendencies in today's game. It helps Ohtani that his current manager, Joe Maddon, is known as a free-thinker who's not afraid to test old baseball rules. When it comes to handling Ohtani, Maddon's strategy is don't.

JOE MADDON: I would really refrain from advising him on a whole lot of stuff. He knows what he wants to do and he knows how he wants to do it. He's got that kind of a baseball mind, so you really want to stay out of there.

GOLDMAN: Unless you're Major League Baseball.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness. Shohei Ohtani - what can't he do?

GOLDMAN: Notoriously sluggish in marketing its top players, MLB is trying to grab hold of Ohtani's eye-popping season. This spot, titled "It's Showtime," is airing during tonight's All-Star Game, when Ohtani will make history as a starting pitcher and leadoff batter. Baseball hopes "Showtime" (ph) can sustain through the rest of this season and beyond.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI'S "BASEBALL THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.