For Japanese Americans in Orange County, Shohei Ohtani is already their MVP

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Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani put the finishing touches on a historic season for the ages in his team’s final home game, where he shaped his unmatched prowess – on the mound and on the plate.

The two-way phenomenon scored 10 strikeouts against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday and lowered his ERA to 3.18 in 23 starts; as a hitter, Ohtani added a single to complete an offensive campaign fueled by 45 homers.

Angel fans serenaded Ohtani with chants of “MVP” to cap off a season many will passionately say as deserving of the American League’s highest honor.

For Japanese Americans in Orange County, Ohtani’s transcendent talents, who have drawn comparisons to Babe Ruth, are more than MVP-worthy; they are a point of pride.

“He’s definitely a bright spot in our community,” said Kihei Otani, president of the Orange County Japanese American Assn. “The Japanese Americans here are all thrilled to see him play. I can’t imagine an American of Japanese descent not cheering him on and going to his games to support him.

The “Shotime” buzz brought Otani to more Angel ball games this season as fans returned to the stands.

He didn’t have the chance to meet the famous baseball player of the same name, but the OC Japanese American Assn. got involved in a Japan Day pre-game celebration at Angel Stadium in 2019 where Ohtani made a special appearance.

One of Otani’s friends also shared the story of a recent encounter with the slugger (and ace) while shopping in a Japanese OC market.

“Oh hello,” Ohtani said politely when approached.

“I hope he maintains his low-key and down-to-earth personality,” Otani said.

Since his first signing with the Angels in December 2017, the superstar athlete’s arrival has resonated with Japanese immigrants to Southern California, like Otani.

But as an ethnic group, Japanese Americans have established deep roots in the OC for decades, especially as farm workers and farmers in the early 20th century who participated in the American hobby.

“Baseball was one of the first organized sports among Japanese Americans in Orange County,” said Mary Adams Urashima, local author and historian of OC’s Japanese-American heritage. “The first Japanese-American baseball team known here was formed by the Smeltzer Athletic Club in north Huntington Beach around 1924, with players from Nisei, most under the age of 17. land in the village of Wintersburg, north of Huntington Beach.

Bonshichi Yoshimura and Masami Fujino, two American-Japanese Orange Groves players in the 1920s.

(Courtesy of the Lawrence de Graff Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton)

Prejudiced at the time, the Orange Groves were excluded from the Huntington Beach District League and, as a result, played against ethnic teams from other cities.

During World War II, Japanese Americans carried with them the love of gambling as they were forced to be placed in prison camps; playing baseball has become a lifeline behind barbed wire.

“The importance of baseball as a touchstone during this era still resonates in the Japanese-American community today,” added Urashima.

After the end of World War II and the policies of the incarceration camps, the OCO club formed as part of a larger sports refuge for young Americans of Japanese descent who continued to be excluded from others. leagues. It was restructured in 1988 and although the Santa Ana-based association is more focused on basketball, its young athletes are still crazy about Ohtani.

“My own cousin’s kids always watch him play,” said Lily Kozai, member of the OCO club board. “They have his jersey and want to go to Angel’s games. The same goes for many other young people in our club as well as in the community. ”

Ohtani’s excellence on the baseball field is more than just inspiration – it’s an opportunity to teach life lessons. Reverend Dr. Mutsumi Wondra gave a dharma talk last week at the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim titled “Shohei Mandala: Repeated Practice Becomes a Good Habit”.

Wondra, who grew up in a Shin Buddhist family in Japan, researched the baseball player’s life history and became interested in the dream matrix he developed as a teenager. Ohtani wanted to be the first pick in the Nippon Professional Baseball League Draft, determined how to improve Mandala-style, and achieved the feat in 2012 when he was selected by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.

“I realized that I could relate Shohei and a lesson on Buddhism by composing a dharma message,” Wondra said. “If I share this mandala methodology with young people or even adults, it’s fun.”

The kids at the Wondra Dharma Conference paid close attention, nodded as she pointed out the key points, and pulled out their smartphones to do some research on the spot.

“Because of COVID, everything has been a little depressing,” Wondra said. “We cherish Ohtani and applaud him for being like a light on in the dark.”

For Americans of Japanese descent, Ohtani’s unique talents provided such joyful moments on and off the pitch during the throes of an otherwise grim pandemic that never existed.

Dennis Masuda proudly wears his No.17 Shohei Ohtani baseball cap.

Dennis Masuda proudly wears his No.17 Shohei Ohtani baseball cap.

(Courtesy of Dennis Masuda)

Dennis Masuda, a longtime Angel fan and 17-year-old season ticket holder, has attended 60 home games this year and proudly watched Ohtani’s historic exploits. “I don’t see a lot of Japanese players,” he said. “The last time the Angels had one was Hideki Matsui 11 years ago. Having one on my hometown team as a pitcher and hitter was pretty exciting.”

Retired high school teacher and coach Marina marveled at the speed of exit from the batter’s home runs followed by his mastery on the mound. And he was not alone.

“It’s really noticeable how many more Japanese [fans] are at the ball stage now, ”Masuda said. “Most of the signs promoting Shohei are all in kanji. I laugh because if someone opened a sushi stand at the stadium, they would win a million dollars!

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