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Shohei Ohtani making a run at AL homer record

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Shohei Ohtani, the biggest star we have in any sport right now, got to 30 home runs this past weekend. Because he always seems to do things with a flourish, he did that by hitting a ball nearly 500 feet, his 15th home run for the month of June. Then he turned right around and began July with another homer, No. 31, in this season when he again continues to make the remarkable seem routine in baseball. But only for him.

If he is not precisely on a pace to hit 60 or more home runs this season — if not yet on pace to perhaps do what Aaron Judge did last season on his way to setting the all-time American League home run record at 62 — the Sho Hey Kid is close enough. It is already enough of a possibility, at this time when he makes everything seem possible, to imagine what the coming baseball September will be like if he is knocking on 60’s door. The Angels have played 86 games this year as Ohtani sits at 31; Judge was at 30 through New York’s 86th game a year ago.

It was a German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer — I promise, today’s philosophy lesson will be brief — who once wrote this: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

That is Shohei Ohtani, whose genius at this time, in his sport, can only be compared to his own.

Babe Ruth was a star pitcher for the Red Sox before he got to New York. He won 18 games in 1915, was 23-12 the next season and was 24-13 the season after that. In his last season with the Red Sox, Ruth was 9-5 as a pitcher but officially became a full-time force at the plate, playing 130 games and hitting 29 homers. Ohtani went past 29 on the last day of June.

At this time in baseball when there will be so many stars to watch in Seattle at next week’s All-Star Game, Ohtani — an All-Star as a designated hitter and an All-Star pitcher — will be the one we will most want to watch. So, too, will the other players in the game want to watch him. In his sixth season in the big leagues, he is still like the best player in Little League, the one who can hit and pitch and do it all.

And now, as we have moved past the halfway point of the 2023 season, he has set himself up to make a run at 60 if he keeps going like this. And, if he is blessed with good health, why in the world wouldn’t he keep going like this? Why wouldn’t we think he could give us the same kind of home run September that Judge gave us when he was chasing first Babe Ruth’s 60 and then Roger Maris’ 61 for the AL record?

“What he’s done and what he’s meant to this team is immeasurable,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said.

In a sport whose foundation is built on numbers and records, Ohtani is immeasurable, even as he continues to hit tape-measure home runs. His stats page, because it includes his batting numbers and pitching numbers, gives off a beam of light. He has a slash line of .306/.390/.670, along with 31 homers, 15 doubles, five triples and 68 RBIs — and let’s throw in 11 stolen bases just for the sheer fun of it all.

He is moving up on 100 innings pitched as a starter and has a 7-3 record with 127 strikeouts in 95 1/3 innings. His ERA is 3.02. In his last start against the White Sox, he struck out 10 on a night when he hit two home runs. Whether he stays with the Angels or leaves as a free agent this winter, he appears set to sign the most lucrative contract that any athlete in this country has ever signed, in any sport.

There was a time, back when Wayne Gretzky — The Great One in hockey — came to play for the New York Rangers. I was talking with Brian Leetch, a pretty great defenseman himself, about Gretzky one day in the Rangers’ locker room, and asked him what it was like to play at the same time as someone like him.

“I’m just glad to be living at the same time as him,” he said.

These are Ohtani’s wonder years. He hits fastballs out of sight and then throws fastballs past the other team. Fifteen home runs in June. Thirty-one for the season. It’s unclear whether he might pitch an inning in Seattle. He started (and hit leadoff) for the American League in the 2021 All-Star Game, then elected to just hit in the game the next season. But if he does both, again, it would be something to see. He’s something to see. Please remember that the 2023 baseball season really began with him striking out his teammate Mike Trout to end the World Baseball Classic, the strikeout heard ‘round the world.

Babe Ruth only started one game for the Yankees as a pitcher when he got to New York in 1920, a year when he hit 54 home runs. The Babe started one game the next year as he was hitting 59. He stopped being a pitcher to become the most famous slugger the game had seen. Shohei Ohtani does both. He keeps hitting targets only he can see. Maybe the next target, a few months down the road, is 63. And wouldn’t that be something to see?

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