How Shohei Ohtani’s signing inspired Ruthian tales of a brush with greatness

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How Shohei Ohtani’s signing inspired Ruthian tales of a brush with greatness

Normally when Trevor Hildenberger changed at his locker after a game, he did so in relative solitude. The reporters would be elsewhere, questioning the players that directly impacted the game. Such is the life of a middle reliever. You’re merely a part of the result. Rarely what defines it.

But on May 10, 2018, the Twins pitcher turned around and saw 20 Japanese media members awaiting his presence. Minnesota had lost 7-4. Hildenberger pitched one inning and allowed one run. The kind of game that doesn’t take long for the world to forget.

In that moment, however, he quickly realized his role that night had transcended a random mid-season defeat. What he realized then, and takes pride in now, is that he had a brush with greatness.

He allowed a home run to Shohei Ohtani.

“I just heard the crack of the bat, and I’m like, ‘F— me, goddamnit,’” Hildenberger said. “But looking back at it, the farther removed I’m from it, I just laugh. It’s a cool, cool relationship.”

It was a one-pitch at-bat, the only pitch Hildenberger would ever throw to Ohtani. He tossed a sinker for a strike, thinking Ohtani would want to watch a pitch. Instead, the two-way superstar crushed it 414 feet to straightaway center. That was his explanation to the copious cameras and recorders pointed in his direction. The people behind them continued to ask follow-ups.

There have been 20,532 Major League baseball players ever. Hildenberger’s career is as average as they come. He has a 5.32 career ERA over 134 relief appearances spanning four seasons. The 32-year-old is retired now, his last MLB cameo coming in 2021 with the Mets.

To Ohtani — perhaps the greatest of those 20,532 players —  that home run more than five years ago is now just one in a pile of blasts he’s hit in a budding Hall of Fame career. There’s a chance he has no recollection of it at all. Statistically, he hits a blast every 16.8 plate appearances, which is partly why Ohtani was front and center in front of 300 media members Thursday in Los Angeles. When Ohtani placed a blue Dodgers hat atop his head, it capped a $700 million courtship that ended in the largest contract in the history of professional sports.

For Hildenberger, that one-pitch encounter is something he’ll never forget. He struck out Mike Trout the next night and joked that he wished that got the same attention.

The game is populated with players like Hildenberger. Guys who have a career steeped in relative obscurity. Their names in the record books simply because of the showdowns they had  — good or bad — with the game’s indelible stars.

“One of the coolest things about playing professional sports,” Hildenberger said, “if you’re not going to be making generational wealth or winning championships, you get to compete against the best in the world. The best of your time. The best ever.”

In 2012, Olney Ray Freeman died at age 98. The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., published an obituary. The first two words were “Babe Ruth.”

During an N.C. State exhibition game against the Boston Braves in 1935, the man they called “Lefty” Freeman struck out The Babe. Freeman had fallen behind 3-0, then tossed three curveballs. Legend has it the final one sent an aging Ruth corkscrewing to the ground as he swung and missed.

Freeman went on to serve in World War II and later became a staple at Wolfpack sporting events. People would ask him about the at-bat against Ruth more than 75 years later.

Freeman was not alone in forging a legacy via a close encounter with greatness. Tales range from Jackie Mitchell, the 17-year-old girl who struck out Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the same exhibition game, to Vincent DeVaney, whose 1993 obituary also led with the fact he once pitched against Ruth.

Only a year earlier, upon release of the movie, “The Babe,” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a story reliving DeVaney’s 1931 encounter with Ruth, where the minor-league pitcher recalled hoping to catch the eye of a major-league team by striking out the Bambino in a Yankees’ barnstorming tour. Instead, DeVaney threw a curveball, and Ruth supposedly belted the ball over a 20-foot cliff, over an 8-foot fence atop the cliff and onto the side of a steep hill beyond the fence.

“Don’t worry about that, son,” DeVaney said Ruth told him as he rounded third base. “I just got lucky.”

There are more stories like his out there. And just maybe, decades from now, people will be speaking with such reverence about their encounters with Ohtani, perhaps the sport’s most transformative player since Ruth himself.

“I used to wish I’d struck him out after all, but then I figured it was better the way it turned out,” DeVaney told the Star-Telegram, echoing Hildenberger. “If I told people I struck out Babe Ruth, they’d think I was lying, but the way when I tell about his home run off me, they know it must be true.”

Shohei Ohtani after his complete game, one-hit shutout against the Detroit Tigers in July. (Mark Cunningham / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Almost all active major-league players marvel at Ohtani’s two-way talents, just like the rest of us. But they can express different reactions after Ohtani gets the best of them, or vice versa, in the heat of competition.

On July 27, Ohtani had one of the most absurd days in baseball history. He twirled a complete game, one-hit shutout against the Detroit Tigers in the opener of a doubleheader. In the second game, Ohtani went 2-for-3 with two home runs. Both homers came against Detroit starter Matt Manning. And after the fact, all Manning could do was give Ohtani props.

“He probably had the greatest day of baseball that anyone has ever seen today,” Manning said. “It was incredible. I’m proud I didn’t shy away from it. Even when I got behind in the count, I went right at him. Tip your cap.”

Only a few days earlier, Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Henry Davis — the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft — became the first player to homer twice against Ohtani in the same game. Davis, though, downplayed the feat even as reporters huddled around his locker after the game.

“He beat us, so I wouldn’t really call it a success,” Davis said. “Just trying to be on time for the fastball and swing at good pitches to hit.”

Sometimes these moments are better appreciated after the fact.

In Las Vegas, former big-league outfielder Johnny Field now works as a real estate agent and private hitting instructor. When a new kid comes into his cage, Field often asks an icebreaking question: “Who’s your favorite player?”

On more than one occasion, a young player has answered: Shohei Ohtani.

“And,” Field said, “I’ll go, ‘Funny thing about that is …’”

Field hit nine home runs in his 83-game major-league career with the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins. Those homers came against pitchers Brian Johnson, J.A. Happ, Félix Peña, Danny Coulombe, Mike Leake, Jakob Junis, Matthew Boyd (twice) … and another name that stands out from the pack: Ohtani.

“Some kids are like, ‘No you didn’t! No way!’” Field said.

That’s when Field pulls out his phone, where he has the video saved just in case anyone ever doubts his story. It was May 20, 2018, at Angel Stadium. Field took a first-pitch fastball deep into the bullpen. It was a special day for Field, who grew up a crazed White Sox fan because his mother was from Chicago. Whenever the White Sox played in Anaheim, Field and his family would try to make the drive over from Vegas. They’d stay at the team hotel and join the line of autograph seekers begging for a glimpse of the big leaguers.

All these years later, Field was playing a series at Angel Stadium for the first time. His parents, his brother and many other friends were in attendance. He actually squared up Ohtani three times that day. There was the homer, a line out to right and a ground-rule double that was only a few feet away from being a second homer against the then-rookie Ohtani, the man who would go on to become the most famous baseball player on the planet.

“You show (the video) to them, and it’s like all of a sudden I become this god to these kids,” Field said, laughing.

Johnny Field hit nine big league homers. One of them came off Shohei Ohtani. (Tony Quinn / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In April 2018, Ohtani hit his first major-league home run on a 2-2 curveball from veteran pitcher Josh Tomlin. Ohtani celebrated in the dugout and even got a curtain call, a harbinger of how he would deliver on every bit of hype that followed him from Japan to the U.S.

“I would say I had a hand in getting him hot,” Tomlin said this week, still lamenting how he hung a two-strike curveball.

Dig into the numbers, and it’s astounding how many more completely random names have already had fateful encounters with the player who just signed the largest contract in the history of professional sports.

There are deep-cut players such as Chris Okey, the Angels catcher who was called up in desperation and tasked with catching Ohtani for a day. There is Jason Martin, who played in only 85 MLB games and hit six home runs, one just happening to be off Ohtani. Free-agent pitcher Joely Rodríguez, owner of a career 4.70 ERA, has faced Ohtani on three occasions and struck him out all three times.

Former Tigers pitcher Jacob Turner faced Ohtani only once and surrendered an opposite-field bomb. Ohtani’s three-run homer came in the first inning of Turner’s return to the Tigers after six winding seasons away from the team that drafted him ninth in the 2009 draft. Turner lasted only the lone inning in what ended up being the final start of his major-league career.

“I can remember them telling me before we went into the game what the scouting report was,” Turner said. “We needed to bust him inside because if he gets his hands extended, it’s usually not gonna be good. I can remember the ball leaving my hand and being like, ‘I’m pretty sure his hands are gonna get extended.’”

After news of Ohtani’s $700 million deal came out, Turner — now a financial adviser who works with athletes and whose X bio includes the line “My kids don’t believe I played MLB” — made a post detailing the stunning breakdown of Ohtani’s contract.

“It sounds like he’s probably had some really smart people around him who are helping him,” Turner said. “I think a lot of these athletes, there’s getting to be better and better information out there for them.”

Kent Emanuel had a spectacular MLB debut. Replacing an injured Jake Odorizzi, Emanuel pitched 8 2/3 innings in relief for the Astros in April of 2021. The first batter he faced was Ohtani. Later that evening, he gave up a homer to the slugger.

Now nearly three years later, the 31-year-old Emanuel has just 17 2/3 career innings to his name. Arm injuries and subsequent ineffectiveness have kept him from getting another shot.

That night largely defines his MLB career. Facing off against Ohtani is perhaps the standalone highlight.

“When someone asks me, ‘Hey, who’s the first batter you ever faced?’ I say Shohei Ohtani, and you get that eyebrow raise from whoever you’re talking to,” Emanuel said. “It’s definitely special in the sense that my introduction to Major League Baseball — it wasn’t a cheap one.”

On Sept. 5, 2022,Kody Clemens entered to pitch in mop-up duty for the Detroit Tigers. Clemens — son of legendary pitcher Roger Clemens — never envisioned he’d be pitching in the big leagues like his father. Roger famously gave each of his sons a name starting with “K” but also did not want them to become pitchers, a way of limiting the pressure and comparisons.

But here was Clemens, an infielder by trade, suddenly facing Ohtani in a two-strike count.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Clemens said that night. “‘This might happen.’”

Clemens lobbed a 68.4 mph pitch to the plate. Ohtani watched it sail by for Strike 3.

Clemens pumped his fist, got the ball back and immediately threw it into the dugout to be authenticated. The next day, Clemens had the ball signed. Ohtani inked his name and even included the playful line: What a nasty pitch!

Clemens put the ball from his first career strikeout inside a frame.

“I’m just trying to get outs, and for it to come like that is obviously super cool,” Clemens had said. “He’s the best player in baseball. So it’s a pretty cool moment for me.”


Clemens, though, is not the only player with a ball linked to Ohtani sitting in a frame somewhere.

When Johnny Field’s home run landed in an Angel Stadium bullpen, Field’s uncle snaked around the outfield and ended up getting a player to toss him the ball. That ball now sits in Field’s brother’s office in Las Vegas. This past weekend, after news of Ohtani’s contract with the Dodgers first hit the public, Field’s father started joking: “Hey,” he said. “You need to find that ball. It might be worth a little something extra now.”

Field’s brother responded: “As soon as it gets worth $40, I’m selling it.”

When Field thinks back on that day now, so much comes to mind. The special moments with family and friends. The Japanese reporters who gathered around his locker after the game, almost surprised that he homered off Ohtani. And, of course, the moment itself, a home run that still comes up all the time in his hitting lessons.

Hildenberger can relate. Soon after Ohtani signed for $700 million, he logged on to social media and posted about his claim to fame.

“Congrats to the best player on Earth. I’ll always remember our battles over the years (1 AB, 1 pitch, he homered).”

The post went viral.

“I’ll be rooting for him the rest of his career,” Hildenberger said. “I hope he hits 10,000 home runs and strikes out every player he faces. Just so when he goes into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, I can be like, ‘Yeah he took me deep.’”

— The Athletic’s Zack Meisel contributed to reporting this story.

(Top photo Shohei Ohtani after homering off the only pitch he’d ever see from Trevor Hildenberger: Kevin Sullivan / Orange County Register via Getty Images)