Shohei Ohtani was exceptional this season. Los Angeles Angels two-way star Ohtani scored 46 home runs, scored 100 runs and posted a .965 on-base plus slugging percentage, behind only Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the American League. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Ohtani was also his team’s best starting pitcher, with a 3.18 earned run average and 156 strike starts over 23 in 130 innings.
On Thursday, Ohtani’s historic efforts were rewarded with the AL Most Valuable Player Award. He joined former Seattle Mariners star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, the 2001 ALMVP, as the only Japanese player to have earned the award in Major League Baseball history.
Ohtani received all 30 first places for the award, which is presented annually by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He defeated his fellow finalist, 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 could be happier with her accomplishment than Tomoyuki and Koru Iwase. They never met 27-year-old Ohtani formally, but they have seen him play more than anyone outside his family.
This season alone, Koru appeared in 136 of the Angels’ 162 games (not including the home run derby in Denver in July) to see Ohtani play. Her husband, Tomoyuki, said that she participated in about 10 fewer games. Superfans used to visit Japan to see him play for his former team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, in Nippon Professional Baseball. Tomoyuki, 49, estimated that he went to 15 different MLB stadiums to see Ohtani play this season. Koru, 38, posts about the trip on her Instagram page.
He has about 300 Ohtani memorabilia, from his Fighters and Angels jerseys to his bobbleheads to the balls he threw at the crowd. (No autograph, though.) A few years back, he did a wedding photo shoot at Angel Stadium while donning an Ohtani jersey — naturally. They lived a 30-minute drive from the stadium in Anaheim but moved to an apartment a five-minute walk from the ballpark last year.
“Even in the off-season, we visit Angel Stadium,” Tomoyuki said in a video interview. “This is our main house,” he said with a laugh.
So when Ohtani was announced as the ALMVP, the moment meant much more than the cornerstone of a spectacular campaign on the field – for the sport, for Japanese baseball fans and others.
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Throughout his career, even in Japan, Ohtani has faced constant doubts about his ability to remain a two-way player. It’s hard enough being an everyday hitter in MLB, the top league with the best players in the world, let alone even serving as starting pitchers.
But all in all, even after Tommy John threw his elbow in 2018, surgery on his right arm and another elbow injury in 2020 forced him to miss nearly two seasons of pitching, he insisted on doing both. Gave. In his first season in MLB, Ohtani won the AL Rookie of the Year award after signing with the Angels in 2018. Freed from the game-time restrictions imposed by his teams in the past, Ohtani was even better this year.
“The reason why I love Shohei and why he is the best and why I am following him is because he has the best mind,” Koru said passionately. “He never changed his goal. In Japan, in high school, everyone said two-player was impossible.”
He later added, “He was No. 1 in Japan but everyone said, ‘You can’t do that in MLB, a two player.’ But he never changed his mind. He believed that he could be the No. 1 player.
In a television interview after being named AL winner, Ohtani admitted that he dreamed of one day winning the MVP award when he first came to America to pitch and hit.
“But I was more appreciative of the fact that American fans and all of USA Baseball accepted and welcomed the whole two-way idea more than when it first started in Japan,” he said through an interpreter. “It made the transition a lot easier for me.”
The Iwases, who met in Japan, are following Ohtani’s career as a highly rated prospect in high school and then in a much-watched tournament. During his five seasons with the Ham Fighters, he traveled from the United States to Japan to see him play – and also visited his families while there. “Shohei was the first priority,” Koru said.
Iwases has seen Ohtani grow, getting bigger and stronger, hit some speed bumps, and now dominate the biggest stage.
Tomoyuki, now a US citizen, moved to this country in 1997, when another Japanese pitching phenom, Hideo Nomo, was acting for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Tomoyuki’s favorite player used to be Suzuki – with whom he shares the same home region, Aichi Prefecture. (Suzuki, who was also AL Rookie of the Year in 2001, may become the first Asian player elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)
“We are very proud of Shohei and Ichiro,” Tomoyuki said. “Ichiro, of course, he’s special. But Shohe changed the rules. What he does is incredible.”
Iwases, of course, weren’t the only ones to notice. Even though the Angels went 77–85 this season and extended their playoff drought to seven years, Tomoyuki said he also saw more Japanese in the stands. For example, during a trip to Texas for Ohtani to play the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers, he said that he met Japanese fans who had come from Florida for the same reason.
“Growing up, I looked up to Ichiro,” Ohtani said. “He also won MVP, he’s someone I looked up to and someone inspired me to play in the big leagues one day. I hope I can be that kind of person for the kids who are watching me right now.” And hopefully one day I can even play with one of the kids who are watching me.
Due to her job as a wedding planner, Iwase can see her favorite player all the time. Tomoyuki is a wedding photographer and Koru is a hair and makeup artist.
They have their own companies, can work remotely this season and travel across the country for weddings, some work trips with Angels Road Games. They find cheap ballpark tickets, and use cash or airline miles to pay their way. They try to arrive early to watch the batting practice.
Asked if Ohtani recognized him after all these years, Iwase laughed and told a story. In 2018, he flew to Seattle for an Angels road trip and brought a happy birthday banner for Ohtani, who turns 24 on July 5, the final game of the three-game series.
Tomoyuki said that Ohtani saw signs in the stands and probably recognized them but “we fear he’s thinking of us as hunters.”
Saying this, Iwas laughed. For him, Ohtani is inspirational and his journey is much like his, coming to a foreign land for work. The new plaque on Thursday only formalized what they already knew.
“He proves that the standard of Japanese baseball is high,” Tomoyuki said. “I’m very happy with it. And at the same time, he proved himself as the No. 1 player, which was one of his goals. I’m very proud of him,” Koru added a few seconds later.