The tweet arrived at 2:03 p.m., just as a contingent of Japanese reporters trickled into the press box at Target Field for another day of exhaustive coverage of rookie sensation Shohei Ohtani, the hottest story in Major League Baseball this season.
Except Ohtani isn’t in Minnesota. And the tweet delivered news of a potentially serious injury in Ohtani’s pitching elbow. The mood changed in a snap.
“Shocked,” said Hideki Okuda, a sportswriter for Sports Nippon newspaper who has covered Japanese players in MLB since 1997.
Shocked, dejected, gut punch.
They all apply.
The magic carpet ride of Ohtani’s debut season took an ominous turn Friday with diagnosis of a Grade 2 sprain of an elbow ligament. Sprain and UCL used in the same sentence usually causes baseball folks to break into nervous sweat.
Ohtani left his start Wednesday because of a blister on his hand. Now there is concern he might need Tommy John surgery if rehab doesn’t yield positive results.
“Naturally you’re concerned any time a pitcher has any type of discomfort,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
Scioscia was flanked by Japanese reporters who chronicle Ohtani with tunnel vision. Much like previous Japanese stars who migrated to MLB, Ohtani has his own beat corps assigned to cover his exploits and little else.
“The majority of those who are covering him, their focus is basically 95 percent Shohei Ohtani,” said Tim Mead, the team’s longtime VP of communications.
The fascination is rooted in historical significance. Not since Babe Ruth has MLB witnessed a regular two-way player. Ohtani hits and pitches, and has displayed tremendous aptitude at both. He smashes home runs and throws 100 miles per hour, a rare talent who arrived with the subtlety of a lightning strike.
“This guy is obviously special,” said Okuda, the veteran sportswriter. “The size of impact might be as big as Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki.”
Okuda has covered Japanese players throughout the majors since 1997, starting with Nomo. He normally covers Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish, but he was assigned the Angels-Twins series this weekend.
He got thrown a knee- buckling curveball.
Mead was conducting an interview about Ohtani-mania as news of his injury began to circulate. He stopped at one point to arrange a media conference call with Angels General Manager Billy Eppler, who was back in California. Forty-five minutes later, the Japanese media joined a few of the team’s American beat writers around a phone in a conference room inside the Target Field press box.
The regular Japanese contingent covering Ohtani has settled in, with 50 to 60 working home games. About half that number travels to road games, too.
The Angels established rules to help ease his transition. Ohtani doesn’t play the day before or after he pitches, so he doesn’t do interviews on those days. He only talks to reporters on days that he plays.
He prefers to hold his news conferences outside of the clubhouse to avoid being a distraction. And no 1-on-1 interviews because his requests are a mile long and the team doesn’t want to show favoritism.
Ohtani has his own interpreter and the Angels also hired a woman who worked in public relations for the Dodgers during the Nomo era to assist them in accommodating the international media.
“All of the decisions have been collective decisions,” Mead said. “It’s not Shohei in any way, shape or form saying ‘I won’t’ or ‘I don’t want to.’ There’s been a certain amount of protecting because of the adjustment to the culture and all the work getting to know his teammates.”
Mead noted that interest in Ohtani is so intense that Japanese TV stations host half-hour shows to dissect his pitching outings.
“At some point we all take a step back and recognize this is history,” Mead said. “It’s a national appeal. Certainly baseball wants to see him do well.”
And see him healthy. This will be an anxious wait while Ohtani rehabs on the disabled list. With any luck, he will avoid the dreaded Tommy John surgery.
His press corps is in limbo, too. Many weren’t sure if they would finish covering this series, return to California immediately or stay with the team for the next series in Seattle.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org