For a few days, it looked like Shigeru Kondo and his clan might whiff on seeing their two-way superstar in Anaheim. They had two strikes.
By Stu Matthews | @stumatthews11
ANAHEIM – Imagine traveling 5,000 miles to go and see Disneyland, only to find out that Space Mountain was closed.
Or imagine traveling across the Pacific Ocean to watch one man play baseball. But only to never see that ballplayer even step out of the dugout.
That’s what happened to the Kondo family of Sapporo, Japan, who were combining a "working vacation" to Hawaii and California last week to indulge in three of their passions – scenery, thrill rides and Angels baseball.
The Kondo family – brewery manager Shigeru, his wife Yumi, and sons Ichiro (first born) and Eiji – flew from Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan with three objectives – 1) Visit some distant relatives in Hawaii; 2) Go to the original Disneyland in Anaheim; and 3) Watch Shohei Ohtani play baseball. Or the game of yakkyu in the Kondo’s native Japanese.
"To be honest, everything looked very promising at the start," said Shigeru Kondo, 35, a manager in distribution for Sapporo Breweries Ltd., the oldest beer maker in Japan (founded in 1876). "Flights were very smooth. Everyone is so friendly. Everything was working according to plan."
If you’re a fan of beer – and who isn’t? – you’re probably familiar with Sapporo’s lager. The delightful golden brew is usually enjoyed in America from the stylish silver cans with the gold star on top, cans that are cleverly arch-shaped to mimic the curvature of a pint glass.
I’m sure some of our readers are familiar with this epic beer. I certainly am.
"We’re very proud that our beer is so popular in the United States," Shigeru said, when I met him on the field level pre-game last Wednesday at Angel Stadium. He smiled. "Of course, we’re also very proud that our native son Ohtani is so popular in America too!"
We’re very proud that our beer is so popular in the United States. Of course, we’re also very proud that our native son Ohtani is so popular in America too! ~ Shigeru Kondo, Sapporo Brewing Ltd. distributor and Shohei Ohtani fan
Shigeru was happy to get his family in the seats, even on a hot day. He speaks perfect English, the result of his university education and his job in international distribution. The rest of his family spoke little or no English, but happiness is a universal vibe. They were at their first baseball game on American soil, and they were going to watch Shohei Ohtani.
The problem was, that last bit didn’t happen at all – not last Wednesday. The Angels were facing Detroit Tigers left-hander Blaine Hardy, and Angels skipper Mike Scioscia has been hesitant to use Ohtani at designated hitter against lefties, even Hardy, who has never been compared to Sandy Koufax.
"We were able to see him stretch in the outfield," Shigeru said. "But it was a bit disappointing that he didn’t get to play in the game."
That’s right. This family had made a special trip to the Big A to see Ohtani, paid hundreds of dollars or more. Ohtani never emerged in the game – a 6-0 Angels victory – not even to swing a bat in the on-deck circle for the intimidation factor.
Shigeru Kondo said he had watched Ohtani smash a three-run homer in the first inning Tuesday night on the TV in his hotel bar in an eventual 11-5 Angel rout of the clawless Tigers. "That was super exciting."
Still it was hard to not feel bad for the Kondo traveling party. Ohtani never got on the field except to limber up, and high-five his victorious teammates afterwards.
I didn’t know what to say to Shigeru, so I blurted out what I thought I might do if I were in a similar situation in a foreign country.
"Is there any way you can extend your stay? I’m sure Ohtani will play this week, or definitely on the weekend … Unless he’s injured, of course."
"I’m not certain. The planes have all been arranged. But if you think he may play, perhaps we can do it."
With that, I bowed with the Kondo clan, accepted Shigeru’s business card, and promised to get in touch if I heard any news.
"Enjoy your trip." That sounded lame.
Manager Mike Scioscia’s usage of Ohtani in recent weeks has been baffling, to say the least.
Arguably one of the Angels’ top three offensive threats – with Mike Trout out with a sore wrist – Ohtani went three days without any game action at all, including the game the Kondo family attended. Thursday was an off day, and Scioscia had his Japanese star collecting splinters up his backside again on Friday during the Angels’ 4-3 comeback win over the Oakland Athletics.
That game – to use a blackjack analogy – was one in which Scioscia pulled a five-card 21, while staring down the dealer’s face card. Everything needed to go right, and it did.
Everyone knows that the Angels – if they would have any chance to chase down the Oakland A’s in the wild-card race from 9.5 games back – would likely need to sweep this series. They need to have a red-hot end of August against relatively benign opposition, and now.
Scioscia didn’t even unleash his secret weapon as a pinch-hitter, when there were opportunities late in a tight game with the bottom of the order coming up. Against righty pitchers.
Why sit Ohtani? Is he hurt? Is something wrong?
With Scioscia and the ultra-secretive Angels, no one ever knows. This, especially after a week in which The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal tweeted that Scioscia would step down after 19 years as Angels manager, only for the Halo don to deny those rumors as "poppycock." So, who knows?
What is not poppycock is the fact that Ohtani’s batting splits have been underwhelming this season against left-handed pitchers (OK, they’ve been awful). But he must be better than some of the lower-lineup bats Scioscia trotted out on Friday?
The Japanese star has had 65 plate appearances against MLB southpaws in 2018. He’s got four doubles, but has struck out 23 times and has a slash of .175/.277/.246 against LHP.
What’s even more cryptic is that Ohtani never had this problem in Japan. Ohtani starred for Shigeru’s hometown Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters before becoming the most talked-about and coveted Japanese import in recent memory (possibly ever) during the 2017 offseason.
Ohtani’s splits in Nippon Professional Baseball show no surface flaw. In his career for the Fighters, Ohtani batted .279 against right-handers, while he positively raked against NBP lefties to the tune of a .309 clip.
Everyone has seen the ugly swings lately against left-handers from Sho-Time. It looks like Ohtani is impatient against the port-siders, is pulling his head and committing too early. Perhaps not taking enough pitches.
So, I asked a colleague who has seen Ohtani plenty in Japan and watched him on TV, John Gibson of Japan Baseball Weekly, for an clue.
It’s just an adjustment thing. MLB lefties throw with higher velocity, and attack him differently. And he’s still trying to pull pitches away from lefties when he should be slamming them down the left-field line. Just adjusting, I think, and that comes by facing them. ~ John E. Gibson, Japan Baseball Weekly
"It’s just an adjustment thing," wrote Gibson. "MLB lefties throw with higher velocity and attack him differently. And he’s still trying to pull pitches away from lefties when he should be slamming them down the left-field line.
"Just adjusting, I think, and that comes by facing them. As you stated."
If adjusting comes by facing lefties, why hasn't Scioscia moved the learning curve?
It’s also strange then, given that Ohtani had been working on an all fields or opposite-field approach since spring training, and many of his homers – all against righties – have gone into the left-field bleachers.
I noted to Gibson that Statcast is showing that 45% of MLB batters are hitting into the defensive shift this year, including Ohtani.
Again, Gibson offered little explanation but a baseball altruism, sounding a bit like Casey Stengel: "Just shows you how tough the game is."
I wondered about Shigeru. So, I emailed him. His response was typically polite:
"Hi Stu. Yes. We have been driving along the coast. So beautiful! Thank you for contacting me. We were able to arrange alternate flights and now we will leave LAX for home on Monday. It has been a wonderful visit."
The Kondo family hadn’t wasted their time. Not only had they driven north of Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, they’d had another whirl-round at Disneyland. Their full mission was nearly accomplished. They were still in their hotel in Anaheim.
Shigeru had told me, stoically, that it wouldn’t be a big deal if they weren’t able to see Ohtani play on this trip. After all, Shigeru has season tickets at the Sapporo Dome and has seen Ohtani bat and pitch "dozens of times."
But his children hadn’t had the privilege.
I responded by saying that If Ohtani was healthy, he’d be in the lineup on Saturday as DH. Sure enough, this was confirmed via Twitter by the Oakland A’s press relations department Saturday afternoon. Ohtani would be batting No. 3, sandwiched between Justin Upton and Albert Pujols. I called Shigeru.
"Did you get tickets?"
"Already got them!" Shigeru said. "And for Sunday, too. Thank you for the tip, Stu."
And thanks as well for the Sapporo Brewing Ltd. expense accounts, I thought. Some things you keep to yourself.
"I can’t get down there tonight, Shigeru, but maybe I’ll see you at Sunday’s game."
It would be very Ruthian of Shohei Ohtani to hit a very long fly for one very nice family who also flew very far.
(Update: Shohei Ohtani didn't hit a home run, but he singled in four at-bats in a 7-0 Angels loss against a vintage Jackson. Ohtani was one of five Angels to manage a hit in the game.)