May 23, 2024

It was about 30 minutes into the Angels’ Sept. 16 game against the Detroit Tigers when fans noticed Shohei Ohtani. The Angels two-way player, who had not been seen at all during a game in almost two weeks while nursing an oblique injury, was perched on a bench in the home dugout, sitting among the rest of his teammates, smiling, chatting and observing the game.

His fans went bounding down the steps in the stands behind the dugout, with their phones and cameras in hand. They crowded at the net that separated them from the players to take their photos of Ohtani, snap selfies with him positioned in the background, and, for the most part, just to get a glimpse of him, even if it was only the back of his head. And for two days, Ohtani fans followed this same pattern, running down toward the dugouts in the dozens between each half inning, getting shooed away from the aisles once play resumed.

“They’re even down there when he’s not, like in case he’s down there,” Angels pitcher Patrick Sandoval said.

Angels fans take photos of Shohei Ohtani during the fourth inning of a game against the Tigers on Sept. 16.

Angels fans take photos of Shohei Ohtani during the fourth inning of a game against the Tigers on Sept. 16.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Before the Sept. 16 game, the Angels announced that Ohtani was finished for the season — and he had surgery on his torn ulnar collateral ligament three days later. So seeing him in the dugout was the only chance fans would have to see him at all. And as the Angels begin their final homestand on Monday, Ohtani could very well be experiencing a similar scene as his team wraps up the season with series against the Rangers and Athletics.

Ohtani’s fan base did not all form in the same place. There are the Angel fans who say Ohtani has become their favorite player. There are Ohtani fans who, after watching him play for one team over the last six years, have developed an affinity for the Angels as well. There are also Ohtani fans who have no tie to any team and just like Ohtani.

But wherever their fandom originates, the Ohtani obsession is very real. Sandoval, for example, posted a candid photo of Ohtani eating a bag of Funyuns to his Instagram story in May. That photo instantly went viral, getting picked up and circulated by other media accounts such as MLB Life (with 20.6K likes on Twitter, to date) and Talkin’ Baseball (with over 7.7K likes). Ohtani had broken part of a digital Coors Light sign at Citi Field at the end of August. The beer brand then made and sold special empty cans mimicking the damaged sign.

“The stuff he does on the field obviously warrants everything that comes with being that famous,” Sandoval said.

It’s the kind of mass attention reserved for a select number of megastars around the world such as LeBron James or Lionel Messi.

At spring training this year, for example, fans tried to pack into two small far off access points at the Angels’ facility in Tempe, Ariz, with some hiking up a nearby rocky hill, just for the chance to see Ohtani pitch a minor league game on a back field. In anticipation of an influx of Ohtani fans and baseball fans wanting some Ohtani merchandise, Yankee Stadium sold Ohtani jerseys in both Japanese and English when the Angels were in town in April.

And after Ohtani tore his right UCL on Aug. 23, one fan showed up to see Ohtani continue to bat in a road series in New York against the Mets, with a sign that spelled “Ohtani” in kanji along with the words: “PLEASE USE MY LIGAMENT” in English.

What makes him so intriguing is not hard to figure out. Ohtani finished his season as the favorite to win the American League most valuable player award. He leads all of baseball in Wins Above Replacement, 10.1. He also leads MLB in slugging percentage, .654, and on-base-plus slugging percentage, 1.066. He batted .304 with 26 doubles, eight triples, 44 home runs and 95 RBIs. On the mound, he finished 10-5 with a 3.14 earned-run average over 23 starts, including his first shutout. He struck out 167 in 132 innings pitched and held opponents to a .184 batting average.

“His play is really fun. It’s so exciting to watch his games,” said Yuka Yonetani, a 51-year-old Ohtani fan visiting from Japan during an Orioles-Angels game on Sept. 10. “Every game [of his] is fantastic, but sometimes [the Angels] win, sometimes they lose.”

Yuka Yonetani, a Shohei Ohtani fan from Japan, sits in the stands at Angel Stadium during an Angels-Orioles game on Sept. 10.

Yuka Yonetani is a Shohei Ohtani fan visiting from Japan who went to an Angels-Orioles game on Sept. 10 at Angel Stadium. “His play is really fun. It’s so exciting to watch his games,” Yonetani said.

(Sarah Valenzuela / Los Angeles Times)

Ohtani also upped his own ante before this season even started, when he went head to head with his other Angels’ star teammate Mike Trout in the World Baseball Classic. Ohtani striking out Trout as Samurai Japan’s closer in that championship game to win the WBC title changed his pull from idol to deity, at least in his home country.

“He’s like God in Japan right now. Everybody looks up to him,” Brooklyn Nets’ player, Yuta Watanabe, who is also Japanese, told journalist Nick Friedell after that WBC game.

Some newspapers in Japan have experienced sales increases related to Ohtani content after the WBC. Japanese tabloid Tokyo Sports, for example, said it hit a sales record of its print product during the tournament — with their sales continuing to trend up every time Ohtani is on their front page.

And it’s more than just an awe and appreciation about Ohtani’s baseball talents.

“[It’s] because he’s able to work hard and stay disciplined in a way that other Japanese people aspire to and that’s really cool,” said 41-year-old Mika Shimura in Japanese, another Ohtani fan visiting from abroad.

Mika Shimura sits in the stands at Angel Stadium holding a "I love Shohei Ohtani more than my husband" sign.

Mika Shimura is a Shohei Ohtani fan. “[It’s] because he’s able to work hard and stay disciplined in a way that other Japanese people aspire to and that’s really cool,” she said in Japanese.

(Sarah Valenzuela / Los Angeles Times)

So what does it mean to be an Ohtani fan, especially with the star’s future so uncertain?

“Well we’re gonna follow him wherever he goes, that’s for sure,” said 31-year-old Tan Nguyen, who along with his wife, Shady, 28, are Ohtani fans from New Mexico who were at the Angels game against the Tigers on Sept. 17. The Nguyens were in the area for a wedding, but had made their travel plans months in advance with the intention of going to that game to see Ohtani play. Their consolation prize was seeing him in the dugout because they were sitting directly behind it, with Ohtani in their line of sight.

The Nguyens’ answer applies for most of Ohtani’s out-of-town fans. The Nguyens had seen Ohtani in Colorado in the middle of the season when the Angels played the Rockies. And Angel Stadium is also routinely filled with visitors from Japan, Ohtani having made the ballpark a tourist attraction, himself the number one reason to visit. But their answer also reflects the potential near-future reality for Ohtani, who is eligible to become a free agent in the offseason.

“I was always an Angels fan first, but I’ll follow him anywhere. I love him,” said Liane Chan, a 32-year-old who is from Anaheim. “I don’t want him to leave.”

Ohtani’s fans will know soon enough where to buy tickets for 2024.

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