In Japan, there are countless boys who are into baseball but only a tiny handful make the cut as professional players. Toru Ohtani is the father of one of the chosen few. "I never thought my boy would make it as a pro baseball player. I just hoped that he would be like me: play baseball with a corporate-sponsored nonprofessional baseball team, and then press on with a regular job," he says of his son Shohei Ohtani, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitching-batting ace.
Shohei is about to cross the Pacific Ocean to follow his major league dream and play for the Los Angeles Angels. It's a glamorous move for the 23-year-old rising star. At the same time though, Toru, 55, hopes that his son can remain an honest and straightforward person, during his baseball career and beyond.
Looking back at Shohei's progress so far, one of the turning points in his development was the decision to enroll in Hanamaki Higashi High School in Iwate Prefecture -- a school renowned for its human education through the medium of baseball. The institution is a high school baseball powerhouse, finishing second in the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament in 2009 and making it to the semifinal in the National High School Baseball Championship the same year, with Yusei Kikuchi on the team, a pitcher who would later go on to play for the Saitama Seibu Lions.
With Hanamaki Higashi's background, Toru thought he might be able to live his dream through his son if Shohei got into the school, as Toru himself had never made it to the hallowed ground of Koshien stadium where the national championships are held. Shohei was keen to enter the school, partly because the baseball training programs there impressed him.
After joining the educational institution, the promising player lived in a school dormitory, and only returned home at times such as New Year's. He rarely contacted his father during this period of his life. "No doubt he got in touch with his mother now and again. Because when kids (need help), they go to their mothers," Toru says.
Life at the new school was not completely smooth though. Between the summer of second grade and the spring of third grade, the youngster experienced some discomfort in his hip, brought on by growing pains. It was handled well by Hanamaki Higashi baseball team manager Hiroshi Sasaki, something that Toru is grateful for. "The manager didn't pressure him too much, or force him to practice. He just let him rest," the father explains.
Shohei later regained fitness, and went on to compete in an Iwate prefectural tournament in the summer. It was there that he set an impressive pitching record of 160 kilometers per hour, catapulting him into the limelight overnight.
During his time at high school, Shohei also began to develop aspirations of playing in the major leagues. This was apparently triggered by the presence of scouts from MLB teams at his practices and games.
In autumn 2012, just before the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) draft, the youngster revealed that he wanted to play in the U.S. "You don't want to play in Japan?" his father asked, to which his son replied, "If possible, I want to go straight away." His enthusiasm to cross the Pacific was intense.
However, in that particular draft, Shohei was selected by the Fighters as their first pick. As negotiations with the team developed, the pitcher became increasingly swayed. Hanamaki Higashi's Sasaki also told Shohei that going directly to MLB from high school in Japan was a tall order.
Toru, however, tried to keep his son's options open and didn't push him down any particular route. "It's your life, so you decide," the father said. He was willing to respect his son's decision either way. After a period of deliberation, Shohei decided to stay in Japan and play for the Hokkaido based team. And the rest is history.
On Shohei's pitching-hitting double act, Toru says, "I used to think he could only pitch, but he also worked hard on his batting as the years went by," revealing his surprise about his son's versatility.
In fact, had it been a choice between one or the other, Shohei's father and mother Kayoko, 54, would have preferred that the youngster take up batting. "Pitching is a lonely role. With batting, at least there are nine of them, so even if he misses, we would feel at ease watching him play," the father says.
In autumn 2016, Shohei injured his right ankle, forcing him to pull out of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in spring 2017. If the truth be told though, Shohei was desperate to play in that WBC, and his team had a hard time convincing him not to participate. "He simply likes baseball. That's always been the case, ever since he was a child," Toru says.
During the injury period, the father sent him messages out of concern, but the replies were frosty. "Maybe this is his rebellious period. It's a little bit late though," Toru would say in a slightly dejected tone.
On Nov. 11, Shohei announced that he wanted to play in MLB. How does his father feel about his son's future in the U.S.? "I think about 10 years there would be sufficient. I'd like him to retire there," he says.
Truth be told, the bigger Shohei becomes in the sport, the more Toru feels like his son is drifting away from him. Nevertheless, despite the huge expanse of ocean that will soon come between them, Toru wants to maintain a "typical father-son relationship" with his superstar son.