Shohei Ohtani has been amazing this season. Ohtani, the two-way star of the Los Angeles Angels, smashed 46 homers, produced 100 points and posted a .965 percentage on basis plus strokes, edging only Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the AHL. . As if that weren’t impressive enough, Ohtani was also his team’s best starting pitcher, averaging 3.18 earned runs and 156 strikeouts in 130 ⅓ of innings over 23 starts.
On Thursday, Ohtani’s historic efforts were recognized with the AL Most Valuable Player Award. He joined former Seattle Mariners star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, the 2001 ALMVP, as the only Japanese players in Major League Baseball history to win the award.
Ohtani received the 30 first place votes for the award, which is presented annually by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He beat fellow finalists Guerrero, who received 29 second-place votes, and second baseman Marcus Semien, also of the Blue Jays, who received 24 third-place votes.
Few people beyond Ohtani’s inner circle can be happier with his achievement than Tomoyuki and Kaoru Iwase. They never formally met 27-year-old Ohtani, but they watched him play maybe more than anyone outside of his family.
This season alone, Kaoru has attended 136 of the Angels’ 162 games to watch Ohtani play (not counting the Home Run Derby in Denver in July). Her husband, Tomoyuki, said he attended about 10 games less. Superfans traveled to Japan to see him play for his former team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Nippon Professional Baseball. Tomoyuki, 49, estimated that they had been to 15 different stadiums in the MLB to see Ohtani play this season. Kaoru, 38, posts about travel on his Instagram page.
They have around 300 Ohtani memorabilia, from his Fighters and Angels jerseys to his minifigures to the balls he threw into the crowd. (No autographs, though.) A few years ago, they hosted a wedding photoshoot at Angel Stadium while – naturally – donning Ohtani swimsuits. They lived a 30-minute drive from Anaheim Stadium, but last year they moved to an apartment a five-minute walk from the stadium.
“Even in the off-season, we walk all the way to Angel Stadium,” Tomoyuki said in a video interview. He added with a laugh, “This is our main house.”
So when Ohtani was announced as ALMVP, the moment meant more – for the sport, for Japanese baseball fans and others – than just the cornerstone of a magnificent campaign on the pitch.
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Throughout his career, even back to Japan, Ohtani has continually been skeptical of his ability to remain a two-way street player. It’s tough enough being an everyday hitter in MLB, the best league with the best players in the world, let alone serving as a starting pitcher.
But all along, even after having Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow, his right, in 2018 and another elbow injury in 2020 forced him to miss almost two seasons of throwing, he insisted on do both. In his first MLB season, in 2018 after signing with the Angels, Ohtani won the AL Rookie of the Year award. Freed from playing time restrictions imposed by his teams in the past, Ohtani has been even better this year.
“Why I love Shohei and why he is the best and why I pursue him, the reason is that his mind is the best,” Kaoru said, increasingly moved. “He never changed his goal. In Japan, in high school, everyone said that two players is impossible.
She later added, “He was No. 1 in Japan, but everyone said, ‘You can’t do that in MLB, two-man. But he never changed his mind. He believed he could be the No.1 player.
In a TV interview after being named the winner of the AL, Ohtani admitted he had dreams of winning an MVP award one day when he first came to the United States to throw and strike.
“But I appreciated the fact that American fans and all of American baseball were more tolerant and welcoming of the two-way street more than when I started in Japan,” he said. intermediary of an interpreter. “It made the transition a lot easier for me.”
The Iwases, who met in Japan, have followed Ohtani’s career since he was a highly regarded prospect in high school and in popular tournaments at the time. During his five seasons with the Fighters, they traveled from the United States to Japan to see him play – and also visited their families during their stay. “Shohei was the first priority,” Kaoru said.
The Iwas saw Ohtani grow taller and bigger and stronger, hit a few speed bumps and now dominate on the bigger stage.
Tomoyuki, now a U.S. citizen, moved to that country in 1997, when another Japanese pitching freak, Hideo Nomo, was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Tomoyuki’s favorite player was Suzuki – with whom he shares the same home region, Aichi Prefecture. (Suzuki, who was also AL Rookie of the Year in 2001, could become the first asian player elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)
“We are very proud of Shohei and Ichiro,” said Tomoyuki. “Ichiro, of course he’s special. But Shohei, he changed the rules. What he does is just amazing.
The Iwas, of course, weren’t the only ones to notice this. Even though the Angels have gone 77-85 this season and extended their playoff drought to seven, Tomoyuki said he’s noticed more Japanese in the stands as well. On trips to Texas to see Ohtani play the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers, for example, he said he met Japanese fans who came from Florida for the same reason.
“Growing up, I watched Ichiro,” Ohtani said. “He also won the MVP title, he’s someone I admire and who made me want to play in the big leagues one day. I hope I can be that kind of character for the kids watching me right now. And I hope that someday I can even play with one of those kids watching me.
Due to their work as wedding planners, the Iwas can watch their favorite player anytime. Tomoyuki is a wedding photographer and Kaoru is a hairdresser and makeup artist.
They have their own businesses, could work remotely this season, and travel all over the country for weddings, lining up a few work trips with the road games of the angels. They find cheap stadium tickets and use cash or airline miles to pay for their trip. They try to get there early to watch batting practice.
When asked if Ohtani recognized them after so many years, the Iwas laughed and told a story. In 2018, they flew to Seattle for an Angels Road trip and brought a happy birthday banner for Ohtani, who turned 24 on July 5, the final game of the three-game series.
Tomoyuki said Ohtani noticed the sign in the stands and may have recognized them, but “we’re afraid he thinks of us as stalkers.”
The Iwas laughed as they said this. For them, Ohtani is inspiring, as is her trip, much like theirs, to come to a foreign country to work. Thursday’s new plaque simply formalized what they already knew.
“It proves that the level of Japanese baseball is pretty high,” said Tomoyuki. “I am very happy about it. And also, he proved himself as the No.1 player, who was one of his goals. Kaoru added seconds later, “I’m so proud of him.”