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OC Register: Ohtani fever? They’re catching it from Osaka to Anaheim


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ANAHEIM — Shohei Ohtani is as big of a news story in Japan as President Donald Trump is in the United States — perhaps even bigger.

Flip on TV news or pick up a Japanese paper and you will be confronted by a flood of images and stories of the Angels’ new two-way star hitting home runs in three straight games and pitching a near perfect seven innings. The most talked about American figure this week in Japan isn’t Trump, it’s Babe Ruth.

Many of the 127 million people living in Japan wake up to watch Angels games live on TV — often before 5 a.m.

“People are going crazy… Ohtani fever is unbelievably high,” said Kazuma Yano, who is visiting Southern California from a suburb of Osaka, Japan’s second biggest city.

“The first thing people talk about now,” he added, “is Ohtani.”

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That excitement is playing out at Angel Stadium. A week into the season — and just days into what might morph into “Ohtanimania” if he continues to play the way he has — Japanese fans are showing up in Ohtani jerseys and T-shirts.

On Sunday, when Ohtani made his home pitching debut, those fans were part of the biggest regular season day game gate at Angel Stadium in 20 years.

A cluster cheered in Japanese from field level seats behind the Angels dugout, waving Japanese flags and holding up hand-made signs that, in Japanese, said things like “Go Ohtani” and “Sho Time” and, referencing his number, “Love 17.”

Alyssa Gabel, a long-time Angels fan from Placentia, welcomes the buzz.

“There was more than the usual excitement,” Gabel said, adding the Big A atmosphere on Sunday reminded her of the 2002 World Series. “It’s really cool that we can get more culture going through baseball. I know it’s huge in Japan.”

The Angels welcome the buzz, too. At the team’s stadium stores, they set up special Ohtani-oriented sections, peddling Ohtani-themed pennants, towels, caps and the like.

Yano, the fan from outside Osaka, bought his ticket online, at home, after learning that Ohtani would be pitching Sunday. It was the first day of a five-day business trip to Southern California, and the 44-year-old (along with his suitcase) took a shuttle directly from LAX to Anaheim Stadium.

“I consider it a half-business trip because the main purpose is to watch Ohtani,” Yano said, laughing and wearing an Ohtani jersey from the player’s Nippon Ham Fighter days.

“I’ve only bought a ticket for today,” he added, noting that he was watching solo. “But I would probably feel like watching more after this game.”

And Yano said that before Ohtani delivered — again — taking a no hitter into the seventh inning and striking out 12 on his way to a 6-1 win over the Oakland A’s.

Still, while Ohtani is dominating Japanese media the way Trump has taken up all the oxygen generated by American political news, there’s a stark difference.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who dislikes Ohtani,” said Naoyuki Yanagihara, a journalist who has covered Ohtani since 2013, his rookie year for Sports Nippon.

Yanagihara is in Southern California this season as part of pack of about 20 Japanese writers who are here to cover all things Ohtani. Everything from Ohtani’s dating life (it’s sluggish) to his food preferences (he’s fond of crepes) have been the grist of Ohtani stories in Japan.

The Japanese say they revere Ohtani’s humility and ability to focus just on baseball, as much as his talent and good looks. The fact that he looks like a potential two-way superstar in Major League Baseball doesn’t hurt.

“He’s so sincere,” Hidemi Eguchi, a 19-year-old from Japan who is studying this year at USC.

“I can tell his character from his comments.”

She was at Angel Stadium Sunday with two Japanese friends from LA; they took Uber to get to the game, a ride that cost about $60.

“I’m so happy that he came to play baseball so close to where I live,” Eguchi said.

“My big sister (in Japan) got so jealous.”

Tomoki Kameyama, who lives in Detroit with his wife and three children, is spending a week vacation in Southern California, in part to see baseball.

They had tickets for a Dodgers game, but when they found out Ohtani would be making his pitching debut in Oakland, on April 1, they scratched that plan and drove six hours from Los Angeles to the Bay Area for the Angels game. Two days later, they were in Anaheim to watch Ohtani play his first home game as designated hitter. That night, Ohtani, in keeping with his Babe Ruth week, swatted his first home run.

“He’s at top level in both, pitching and hitting,” Kameyama, 41, said in Japanese.

Kazuto Soejima turned up for the Sunday game as part of a week long vacation in Southern California. He was here partly for top-flight golf (multiple rounds at Torrey Pines; watching the Masters on TV), and partly for Ohtani.

When Soejima and friends found out Ohtani would pitch Sunday, they quickly bought tickets. They even gave up watching the last round of the Masters, and drove more than an hour to Anaheim, for some seats on the third base line.

“This is once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Soejima said.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs says there are more than 70,000 Japanese natives living in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. And, so far, most of the Japanese fans who’ve caught an Ohtani game in Anaheim seem to be from that world.

But as summer approaches, and Japanese schools take a break, Japanese families will take long vacations and Angel Stadium figures to get a surge of business. Japanese travel agencies have already begun selling packaged tours to watch Angels games.

The first wave is expected during Golden Week, from the end of April to early May, when a number of Japanese holidays are celebrated. That week, the Angels are slated to play, among others, the Yankees.

Riko Ieda, who works for a Japanese company in Irvine, sat in the stands Sunday with three Japanese co-workers. As Ohtani dominated, the 27-year-old said she identifies with her countryman.

“It had been my dream to come to the U.S. and work here since high school,” Ieda said in Japanese.

Ohtani, of course, famously had the same dream.

“I was able to achieve that… and come here three months ago, around the same time as Ohtani.”

Seeing him succeed, she added, “motivates me to work harder.”

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