Assimilating Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani is aiming to give baseball fans something many of them have never seen before. (via Michelle Jay)

One was barrel-chested, meaty, with a cleft in his chin and a nose like a Bosc pear someone left on the F train; the other is slender, long-legged, with the easy loping gait of the kind of creatures that live in fog banks on craggy mountaintops. One was notorious for loving the fast life, the kind of man who went out on Fridays so he could recuperate on Saturday and repent on Sunday; the other is remarked upon for a seemingly monastic disinclination towards excessive socializing.

They belong to different eras, one born almost 50 years after the other died, and so to different eras in baseball: from segregation to integration, expansion, free agency, steroids, the Wild Card, balls both dead and juiced. In the space between them, a war: one which would change the shape of the world and its people; a war that would illustrate the extent to which certain humans are able to deny the humanity of others; a war that would forever alter the relationship between the United States and Japan, the home countries of these two players.

And yet for all their differences, the names of George Herman Ruth and Shohei Ohtani are now knitted together, inextricable for at least as long as Google and its 100,000+ results for “Babe Ruth/Shohei” stand.

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Links between Ohtani and Ruth crop up at least as early as 2013, when Ken Belson of The New York Times made an offhand note in an article about the Japanese star’s decision to stay in Japan to become a two-way player: “Otani’s statistics are a far cry from those of Babe Ruth, the most famous player to pitch and play another position.” The references to Ohtani as “Japan’s Babe Ruth” begin in earnest in 2015, after Ohtani had set the record for the fastest pitch ever thrown by a Japanese pitcher in Japan’s 2014 All-Star Game and gained international prominence as a member of the Japanese National Team, playing against a squad of major league players.

Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani: two strangers who share an aptitude for two usually separate skills in the same sport but little else in a broad historical context, inscribed side by side in the domesday book of the 21st century internet, because the instinct to compare one thing to another is that powerful.

When confronted with new information, the human brain is thrown into conflict, a state educational psychologist Jean Piaget called “cognitive disequilibrium” but which is also known as “cognitive dissonance.” Despite what the condition of many of our closets may suggest, humans crave order; as the world buffets us with a seemingly endless stream of new information, organizational systems can help us make sense of the parade of information, which serves an evolutionary benefit as well as a psychological one.

Certain kinds of new information, however, threaten the systems–or schema, to use Piaget’s term–by refusing to fit neatly into pre-existing schema. The viral video of “baby scared by loud noise” has become a favorite reaction .gif to express wanting to leave a conversation immediately, but the video itself is cognitive disequilibrium in action: the baby hears its name, toddles excitedly towards the recognizable sound, and then gets its whole organizational system blown all the way up. As we get older and gain more experiences, and our schema become richer, we grow out of these reactions. Mostly.

At any given time, there are between five and six thousand players across the levels of professional baseball. Football has bigger rosters (53 vs. 40) but fewer levels, and about half of those 53 are linemen the casual fan doesn’t know by name. It can be exhausting to try to keep up with baseball over a season that stretches from spring into fall, with its the constantly shifting schema as players are called up and sent down, and good players slump and formerly unremarkable players blossom into stars. Shortcuts are helpful, and necessary.

Piaget theorizes that, when presented with new information, humans have two, complementary options: assimilation of the new idea, working it into the pre-existing schema; and adaptation, shifting one’s schema to create a new space for the information. Both take mental work, adaptation more so than assimilation, and as our brains develop we get better at this kind of work, as neural pathways are defined and refined. Comparing one player to another isn’t just convenient, but a way to organize the greater system of baseball, and the longer one is a student of the game, building a personal database of player-types, the more the neural pathways leading from Willie Mays to, say, Lastings Milledge.

But even after all this mental locomotion is accomplished by the tiny stevedores of the neural pathways in our brains, another step remains: affixing language to the new concept. Linguists as far back as de Saussure have noted that the relation between the thing itself and the name by which it’s called is arbitrary. Why does the string of letters c-a-t for an English-speaking person conjure an image of a fuzzy bewhiskered friend, while the same thing that would be called neko in Japan? There is nothing inherently cat-like about the letters c-a-t; the understanding of c-a-t as cat is based on cultural norms, the understanding passed on from generation to generation.

There’s a comfort in that. For a baby frightened by a sudden noise, being able to put a name to that noise, to fit “silly grandpa roar” into its schema represents a step forward in development, and a reduction in fear. When you say “cat” to another English-speaking person, you can trust that the person has access to the same schema to know what you’re talking about.

Similarly, the baseball fan or analyst who is able to create a new space in the schema with the phrase, “you know who that reminds me of…” by comparing an unknown quantity to a known one offers a jumping-off place for the conversation, no matter how arbitrary the spot chosen. Those familiar with scouting grades know what a 65 runner or a 45 arm look like to them, but the numbers alone aren’t as evocative as tying actual players to the abstract concept of an unknown prospect. Like the shared understanding of c-a-t meaning cat, player comparisons can help the more experienced conversational partner–the one who does know what an “Alex Reyes” is–transfer knowledge to the less experienced conversational partner. The educational theorist Lev Vygotsky called this learning space “the zone of proximal development,” when a learner is offered sufficient scaffolding based on prior knowledge to build out the new schema required (what Piaget called adaptation), thanks to the tutelage of a more knowledgeable peer or teacher.

The zone of proximal development, and its ability to grow the game fan-to-fan, has become especially critical to modern baseball. While baseball has always played second fiddle to football, with the gap growing in the past two decades, a recent Gallup poll shows that baseball has now slipped to the third-most popular sport among Americans, with soccer tight on its heels. Baseball, then, has never had a greater interest in making its unknowns known, in plugging players into existing schema as rapidly as possible and letting the zone of proximal development do its work; it has never been more critical to the sport to manufacture superstars.

Superstars are the most valuable commodities in baseball, not only from the perspective of winning games, but also–and equally importantly, to some front offices–from a business standpoint. Not only does the thrill of seeing Giancarlo Stanton rearrange a baseball’s atoms in person draw fans to the ballpark, superstars interest and invest young fans in the game in general, something which is a struggle for baseball. The current median age for a major league fan is the highest among all the major professional sports. When the potential superstar is someone who exists on the fringes of a casual fan’s knowledge base, the stakes to create new schema rise even higher.

In terms of schema-building, humans are actually better at this kind of thinking as teenagers, when our brains are a little more plastic. In a recent study that pitted older brains against younger brains in a challenge that required on-the-fly learning, the teens beat the adults thanks to their use of episodic memory, rather than the adults’ slower trial-and-error method. Scientists theorize that developing less-plastic brains might have served an evolutionary function; brains with stable neural pathways, less subject to the whims of impulses, knew the quickest, safest way to get to the good food, and get home before dark. If it ain’t broke, don’t create new schema for it.

Creating a personal assessment of players takes time, and a deep knowledge of skills, and an subscription; it’s quicker and easier to read something written by an expert, accept the player comparisons within, and move on. And thus a writer in 2013 assigns Shohei Ohtani a player comparison, and over time others begin to echo this comparison, a string of letters that might as well spell out c-a-t.

It’s not a bad thing, clearly, to be compared to Babe Ruth. In fact, the Babe Ruth comparison is the nuclear option for scouts, a comparison you can make only if you’ve been around long enough to have the codes. Stan Zielinski, a beloved former Cubs scout, was a sufficiently august presence to be able to invoke Ruth’s name in a scouting report on Kyle Schwarber without significant blowback. Buster Olney didn’t fare quite as well when invoking the Babe’s name regarding Aaron Judge, and he was quick to point out Judge has only “some” elements in common with his pinstriped predecessor. References to Scott Boras invoking Ruth’s name in talking about his client Rich Ankiel seem to have been vigorously scrubbed from the internet.

The Babe Ruth comparison has gotten only harder to earn over time, which is right and just, considering the era and the magnitude of the player in question. Maybe the last truly fair Ruth comparison was made contemporaneously in 1923, when famed Yankees scout Paul Krichell called Lou Gehrig “another Ruth,” which somehow manages to seem both fair and likely doing a disservice to each player.

Perhaps that’s how the Babe Ruth/Ohtani comparisons will seem, one day. But currently, what they seem like is a quickly ginned-up schema to assimilate Shohei Ohtani for American audiences. In addition to fighting for a bigger piece of the sports landscape, baseball is struggling now with the problem of having to adapt for true two-way players, which Ohtani will almost certainly be (at least, initially) and recent draftees Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay, among others, might be. Developers have had difficulty trying to plug Ohtani’s unique skill set into fantasy apps and games. This is what creating new schema looks like, writ large: new code has to be written. Marketers have to decide how to market him, without knowing exactly what he’ll be. Analysts have to decide how they’ll introduce audiences unfamiliar with both the NPB and professional two-way players to Ohtani. When they say “he broke the mold” about someone, it’s usually not meant quite this literally.

And in that way, maybe that’s where the Ohtani/Ruth comparisons are most apt. Babe Ruth, with his mighty swing, changed baseball; he took the bunt-happy small ball of the time and blew that schema all the way up, knocked it onto a train car to travel 750 miles away. If Ohtani succeeds as a two-way player—if he is truly offered that opportunity, which isn’t a given–he will have a similar legacy in baseball. The Two-Way Player Era could knock off the Juiced Ball Era; the game would never be the same.

And yet, there will always be something about comparing Ohtani to Ruth that will feel inexact, grasping, desperate. In a letter after finishing his first historical novel, Salammbô, Gustave Flaubert wrote, “few will guess how sad one had to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.” Nostalgia is inherently sad, a wish toward a time that no longer exists, and attempts to reach back toward that place only underscores how far away it is. Exhuming Babe Ruth and dragging him across eras to prop up a floundering schema is a cheaper trick than the Bambino deserves, and it does no service to Ohtani, either.

Ten years before the beginning of World War II, Babe Ruth traveled overseas to play a series of exhibition games in Japan. As Robert Fitts tells it in his book Banzai Babe Ruth, part of the pitch to convince the reluctant Babe to go was a large promotional poster of “Baseball King Babe Ruth,” featuring a prominent portrait of the Babe with “almond shaped [eyes] with the distinctive downward slant of an Asian and not the rounder eyes of a Westerner.” Reportedly, the image made the Babe guffaw loudly, and he agreed to go on the tour.

Maybe the clear lack of schema the Japanese artist had for the concept of Babe Ruth swayed him; maybe the aging star just liked seeing himself labeled, in foot-high letters, Baseball King. Eighty years later, and the U.S. market is trying the same trick in reverse, Americanizing Shohei Ohtani by labeling him after one of the greats, to build a superstar on the back of another. The instinct to assimilate is an understandable and human one, but it’s time to move past that and let Ohtani himself teach us about who he is.

References & Resources

Kate Preusser lives in Seattle, where she manages Lookout Landing and spends too much time thinking and writing about Mariners baseball. Follow her on Twitter @1nceagain2zelda.