Japan's affinity for Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani examined in 'Searching for Ohtani'




OK, so now Ben Verlander knows what it feels like to have been the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin rolled into one walking along the streets of Japan.

He traveled to Japan to grasp the reverence, respect and admiration for one of the most beloved athletes to ever come from Japan.

In the process, says Verlander, the younger brother of two-time Cy Young, MVP winner and World Series champion Justin Verlander, he also discovered his true meaning.

Verlander spent 10 days in Japan last month traveling to Shohei Ohtani's hometown, going to ballgames, visiting Ohtani's former coaches and teammates, his hometown mayor, fans and children, and returning for a one-hour interview with Ohtani in Los Angeles.

It will all be unveiled in the show "Searching for Shohei: An Interview Special", which will be broadcast Oct. 18 on Fox Sports 1 after Game 1 of the ALCS.

"I didn't know what was going to happen, I didn't know what we'd get," Verlander told USA TODAY Sports, "but it was the most powerful story what he means to everyone in Japan, and at the same time, what I mean.

"Without sounding too mushy and sentimental, everybody wants to have a purpose. I thought my purpose was to play baseball, and play it as long as I can. But I learned that even though my baseball career is over, I still matter.

"I learned that is what I was meant to do, talking about my love for the game, helping grow the game.

"It was pretty powerful and very emotional."

Shohei Ohtani played for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball
Shohei Ohtani played for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball's Pacific League before joining the Los Angeles Angels.  

Verlander, 30, a third-team All-American as a pitcher and outfielder for Old Dominion before spending five years in the minors, wanted to travel to Japan and work on an Ohtani special for nearly a year. He felt almost as if he was a conduit between the United States and Japan, expressing his constant love and appreciation for Ohtani's dominance as perhaps the greatest two-way player in history.

"If he were just a pitcher," Verlander says, "he'd be Jacob deGrom. If he were just a hitter, he'd be Mike Trout. He's just incredible."

"I take it as a sense of responsibility to make sure I'm talking about him the right way."

Verlander heard that he was loved in Japan with his glowing coverage of Ohtani, making him a regular segment in his podcast, "Flippin' Bats." He found out soon enough that he underestimated Japan's love for Ohtani, and those who cover him. His podcast was viewed more than any sports podcast in Japan during his visit.

"People in Japan aren't the most outspoken," Verlander said. "They don't speak up, don't speak boldly, so I am their voice on the other side of the world. How can you not be affected by that?

"When I got over there, I was blown away by the response. The response was unbelievable. There were grown adults coming to see me, some traveling four hours, coming to see me for meet-ups. There were gifts, magazines, posts with my picture on them.

"There were kids who broke into tears. One girl burst into tears and couldn't bring herself together. I was blown away. Kids there were asking for my autograph. It was emotional for me, emotional for them.

"Looking back, I saw some of the coolest things in the world.

"Really, it was the coolest experience in my life."

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“Searching for Ohtani’’ will air on Fox Sports 1 after Game 1 of the ALCS on Oct.
“Searching for Ohtani’’ will air on Fox Sports 1 after Game 1 of the ALCS on Oct.  

Verlander visited Ohtani's hometown in Mizusawa, met with the mayor at city hall, where he was wearing an Ohtani jersey and a replica of Ohtani's hand for visitors to shake. He spent time at his high school, Hanamaki Higashi, talking to his former teammate, Daiki Obara, and his former coaches. They regaled him with stories on how Ohtani was the best swimmer in school, but not on the swim team. His baseball coach implored him to quit hitting the balls over the right-field fence into the river, so he started spraying the homers to all fields.

"I think a lot of people saw Shohei as a pitcher, and when he was throwing 100 mph at 18 years old, and just assumed he would be a pitcher," Verlander said. "Now that they see him on the mound, this is where he's supposed to be, and the fact that he's hitting too, makes him a unicorn. He's a mythical creature, showing what is possible.

"From talking to Shohei, and hearing him talk about this, he's laying the blueprint for kids, having them believe they can do it, too. I think what he's done will change the game of baseball forever."

Ben Verlander spent 10 days in Japan traveling to Shohei Ohtani’s hometown.
Ben Verlander spent 10 days in Japan traveling to Shohei Ohtani’s hometown.  

Ohtani, 28, not only has captivated our attention in this country, but he has become perhaps the most popular Japanese player in history. He doesn't hit home runs like the record 868 homers by Sadaharu Oh in Japan. He likely won't produce 3,000 hits or win two batting titles like future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki. But with the advent of social media, and Ohtani being the most eligible bachelor in Japan, his popularity is unprecedented.

"He's not just a great baseball player, but it's his personality," Verlander said. "He's relatable. People relate to him because of what kind of person he is. He's so polite and proper. You see him even picking up trash in the dugout or tunnel.

"That's why I wanted to throw myself in middle of it all, and learn everything about him."

Ben Verlander was a third-team All-American as a pitcher and outfielder for Old Dominion before spending five years in the minors.
Ben Verlander was a third-team All-American as a pitcher and outfielder for Old Dominion before spending five years in the minors.  

And now Verlander is ready to tell his story after learning everything he possibly could about Ohtani, and, yes, even himself.

"I don't speak their language, they don't speak mine," Verlander said, "but what we understood was the language of Shohei Ohtani. It's the power of Shohei, and what he's done, with all of their hopes and dreams coming true. I'm privileged to talk about what he means to people all over the globe. It's an honor to do this and celebrate one of the best players we've ever seen.

"What can I say? This is the highlight of my life."

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Searching for Ohtani' examines Japan's affinity for Shohei Ohtani

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