Ohtani: AP Male Athlete of the Year

SUPERSTAR. Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani watches his second, two-run home run of the game off Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Lance Lynn during the fourth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, May 31, 2023, in Chicago. Shohei Ohtani has been named The Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year for the second time in three years. / AP
SUPERSTAR. Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani watches his second, two-run home run of the game off Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Lance Lynn during the fourth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, May 31, 2023, in Chicago. Shohei Ohtani has been named The Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year for the second time in three years. / APCharles Rex Arbogast

BEFORE Shohei Ohtani stepped into the bright lights of Hollywood and signed the most lucrative contract in professional sports history, baseball’s two-way superstar put together yet another season of unparalleled brilliance from Tokyo to Anaheim.

What can this singular talent possibly do next? The Los Angeles Dodgers are eagerly paying $700 million to see for themselves.

But what Ohtani already did in 2023 — both for the Los Angeles Angels and for Japan’s team in the World Baseball Classic — is the reason he was selected as The Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year for the second time in three years.

“Shohei is arguably the most talented player who’s ever played this game,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, after signing Ohtani to a 10-year contract last week.

Ohtani edged Inter Miami superstar Lionel Messi and tennis great Novak Djokovic for the AP honor in voting by a panel of sports media professionals.

Ohtani received 20 of 87 votes, while Messi and Djokovic got 16 apiece. Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets’ NBA Finals MVP, got 12 votes.

After winning his first AP Male Athlete of the Year award in 2021, Ohtani has joined an impressive list of two-time winners of the honor, which was first handed out in 1931.

In good company

Multiple-time winners include Don Budge, Byron Nelson, Carl Lewis, Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps and four-time honorees Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. Four-time winner LeBron James is another generational superstar who chose Los Angeles as a free agent, while two-time honoree Sandy Koufax remains one of the greatest players to wear Dodger Blue.

Ohtani has upended decades of conventional wisdom during his six years in the majors, even surpassing most achievements of Babe Ruth while playing in an infinitely more difficult era. Most new frontiers in sports are crossed incrementally and gradually, but Ohtani has toppled barriers that stood for a century with peerless skills, confidence and hard work.

Ohtani unanimously won the AL MVP award in 2021, and he repeated the feat in 2023 after finishing second in 2022 to Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, last year’s AP Male Athlete of the Year.

This year began with Ohtani’s dazzling MVP performance for Japan’s championship team in the World Baseball Classic — complete with a clinching strikeout of Angels teammate Mike Trout. He then turned in his third consecutive spectacular season both on the mound and at the plate in Anaheim despite an early end after he injured his pitching elbow in August.

Ohtani led the AL with 44 homers, 78 extra-base hits, 325 total bases and a 1.066 OPS as the Halos’ designated hitter. He also held hitters to an AL-best .184 batting average while ranking second in the league with 11.39 strikeouts per nine innings and third with a 3.14 ERA at the time of his injury.

“There’s nobody like him, and there’s nothing that you would say he can’t do,” former Angels manager Phil Nevin said late in the season. “Anything is possible with Sho. I don’t know who else you could say that about in baseball history.”

Ohtani left Japan in late 2017 to pursue his dreams at his sport’s highest level, and his exploits are followed in microscopic detail by his fans in his homeland. When he got his first chance to play for Japan in the World Baseball Classic last spring, Ohtani seized the moment with both hands.

Ohtani was outstanding in Japan’s games in Tokyo and Miami, batting .435 with four doubles and a homer despite getting walked 10 times. He also pitched 9 2/3 innings, racking up 11 strikeouts with a 1.86 ERA.

The championship game ended in storybook fashion with Ohtani striking out Trout, the three-time AL MVP and Ohtani’s longtime Angels teammate, for the final out in Japan’s victory over the US.

Ohtani then turned in another outstanding, unique season with the Angels before he hurt his elbow and eventually had a second surgery that will almost certainly prevent him from pitching in 2024, just as he missed nearly all of 2019 and 2020 as a pitcher.

His injury history did nothing to suppress his free-agent value, partly because Ohtani can remain one of the majors’ best hitters while he waits to see if his pitching elbow will heal again.

Record-setting contract

“One of the many things we’ve come to appreciate over the years about Shohei is watching him never take a pitch off, no matter the score of the game,” Friedman said. “I’ve seen him in games where his team is up big or down big, grinding each pitch late in an at-bat — hustling, doing everything he can to leg out an infield hit late in a game.”

While Ohtani has redefined what’s possible in modern baseball, he accomplished another unprecedented feat by signing his record-setting contract. The deep-pocketed Dodgers eagerly invested in the 29-year-old Ohtani’s next decade while knowing his worldwide fame generates revenue no other baseball player can touch.

“I’m still in the pinch-me phase, to be honest,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Can’t believe we’re going to have the opportunity to have him wear a Dodger uniform. One of the most talented players ever to put on a baseball uniform is now a Dodger.”

Ohtani did nearly everything except win with the Angels, who haven’t had a winning season since 2015. When he hit free agency this winter, he eventually chose the nearby club that has had only two losing seasons in the 21st century, none since 2010.

The Dodgers won the aggressive competition for Ohtani’s services by offering that gargantuan — and structurally creative — contract, but also a supportive environment on the West Coast, supremely talented teammates and the resources to get more — along with a winning culture around a team that has made 11 consecutive playoff appearances.

“I can’t wait to join the Dodgers,” Ohtani said through his translator, Ippei Mizuhara. “They share the same passion as me. They have a vision and history all about winning. I share the same values.”

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