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Unspeakable Wonder

On Shohei Ohtani.

Enough for one day about bishops and poetry, the only two subjects about which I seem to have had anything to say recently. Let the reader turn his attention to a much graver (and I daresay more hallowed) mystery.

I am talking, of course, about Shohei Ohtani. What can be added to the enormous journalistic stock of what has been said already concerning this prodigy? One uses the word here in its original sense of a prodigium, an omen or portent by which the inscrutable will of the gods is announced to the mortal world; a monster, a winged serpent or two-headed calf whose appearance—however terrible in itself—betokens the coming of some strange and unspeakable wonder.

For Ohtani every game—every appearance on the mound, every at-bat—is a register of superlatives. His feats—what he does cannot really be called “hitting” or “base running” or what have you—reveal the final poverty of statistics, the symbolic language constructed by baseball fans in the doomed hope of communicating the holy awe that certain players inspire. Ohtani’s prowess has been discussed ad taedium. Rather than add to the unending litany of praise (in which I have no doubt sportswriters are being joined even as I write this by the heavenly host in their glorious order and array, proud seraphs who envy us our unrestrained ability to “contend / As at th’ Olympian Games or Pythian fields”) I should just like to say a few words about what Ohtani means for baseball itself.

It is one of those strange accidents of providence—a divine joke of sorts—that Ohtani should have appeared only now, in a historical moment that should otherwise be characterized by a kind of all-embracing crepuscular gloom, when it is probably too late for America’s game. The obituaries for baseball have already been written, including by me, and I need not detain the reader with pointless arguments about why one day in the not-very-remote future it will no longer be considered a professional sport in the sense that football is one. Suburbanization, financialization, the sinuous continuum of behaviors, dispositions, and law enforcement priorities sometimes referred to as “safetyism,” the meteoric ascent of the National Football League, the greed and short-sightedness of television networks, the eclipse of A.M. radio—the list is really too long to rehearse here. Suffice it to say that we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.

And yet here he is. The man I and many others believe will go on to be regarded as the greatest player in the history of the game has emerged like a hero from the clouds, too late to save us or the game. His very existence is gratuitous, a reminder that heavenly favor is bestowed remarkably without regard to the rude designs of man or the exigencies of mere terrestrial existence.

What I mean is simply that in my own childhood, when every boy in my fourth-grade class followed baseball with a passion verging on idolatry, Ohtani would have been not merely a “household name,” like Sosa or McGwire or (my own childhood hero) Jeter, but a world-historic force, an entity comparable to Michael Jordan, the Weltgeist standing atop the pitcher’s mound or (as the case may be) desultorily flipping his bat. Nowadays, as far as name recognition goes, American children are more likely to be acquainted with any one of dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of Tik-Tok stars or purveyors of “content” on YouTube than with Shotime; even among many avowed “sports fans,” like most of my male relations, Ohtani is roughly as well known as, say, Cole Beasley, who (I am told) has just signed with the Giants after a second stint with the Bills that had begun on the practice squad.

Which is why it seems to me an even crueler dictate of providence that Ohtani should find himself on a team barely above the five hundred mark, in fourth place in the American League West, with only the most distant prospect of a Wild Card spot. An Ohtani World Series would almost certainly mean the highest ratings for the Fall Classics since the early 2000s at least, especially if the networks bothered to promote it with anything even approaching the assiduousness (and, let’s face it, barely disguised hectoring) they have brought to the frankly impossible task of getting most Americans over the age of thirty-five to feign interest in soccer. And who knows what might happen from there? It might well be the beginning of a nationwide baseball revival comparable to that which we are told is underway in Bhutan, that land of wonders. Could this after all be the sign for which Ohtani is appointed?

As I say, this is all spectacularly unlikely. The Angels are unlikely to improve upon their current record in the coming weeks, and one realizes with a sense of horrifying inevitability that somehow they will manage hold on to Ohtani in free agency, in an understandable attempt to sell tickets and shirts and even (who knows) somehow negotiate a slightly more sensible and fittingly remunerative contract with regional television providers. Otherwise, though, the likelihood that Ohtani will save baseball from its irreversible collapse into an entertainment product commanding an audience somewhere between that of the World Series of Poker and curling is vanishingly small.

And so one realizes with a sense of mounting horror that this living mirror of Absolute Beauty upon whose head an aureole rather appropriately hangs—this beam of sun that lights teasingly upon the occult granite and leads us by gentle steps thither to the door of the cave—this apparent undiminished survival from the antediluvian stock of our race, when the sons of Adam strove with giants and demons in mighty contests—you get the idea—will continue to be the delight of a small and ever-diminishing minority of culturally irrelevant fanatics and enthusiasts and that the epochal significance of his talents will go largely unsung.

I had promised at the outset to lay off poetry, but it seems to me that (having already violated my proscription twice already in the span of a reasonably short opinion column) a few lines of verse would not be out of order:

And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;
But if we could see and hear, this Vision—were it not He?