Shohei Ohtani is a wonder.
My MLB career spanned the heart of the steroid era in baseball. Its noxious cloud still makes us question today's players and their motives, and tantalizes any performer to consider modern shortcuts to gain an edge.
But the most damage it did might be in robbing us of our ability to be awed -- fans and players alike.
As a young Little Leaguer -- playing for hometown businesses like Joey's Children's Wear or Carratura Construction -- I'd watch batting practice at a big league ballgame whenever we got there early enough. Growing up in New Jersey, I'd go to Yankee Stadium or Shea. I watched the trajectories, the four-second wait for the ball to come down. Baseballs looked like planetesimals, orbiting the brilliance of the talent on the field. Where would their orbit take them? Anything seemed possible.
I learned to judge fly balls through baseball's requisite course in ballistics. I needed to know if a fielder could catch it, or should have caught it, to speak intelligently in the inevitable debates. I could also hold my breath after sensing it might go over the fence. The ultimate crescendo on baseball's sheet music.
I became one of those players, yet I never lost the power to be awed by incredible moments. It didn't have to come from the guy with the best fastball or the most prodigious power -- it could come from anyone, anywhere. You could not will it, you could not contrive it, and even when you tried, you could never understand how it would be received. In 1999, I managed to surpass 200 hits in a season, but how could I have imagined that my 200th hit would come on a home run against the team that had traded me?
Just as I watched the batting practice of Vladimir Guerrero Sr. to see how hard and far he could hit a ball, or Billy Wagner throwing fireballs from his fire-hydrant frame, I was even more moved when I saw Eddie Oropesa reunite with his family, which he had not seen for years after defecting from Cuba.
The game is rightfully called "The Show," and from the power-precision of Curt Schilling to a Scott Rolen home run trot to Jimmy Rollins' sixth sense on the bases, it was a daily occurrence to be amazed by my teammates and my opponents. But you never knew when it was going to happen. You just saw the ingredients shifting around in the mixing bowl until the right combination coalesced and it started to glow.
I played against the best; I played with the best. There are players who make you watch the replay for a second look, and then there are players who make you look up to the stars. Ohtani is that star, distant for his unimaginable and unreachable talent but our nearest star for the brilliance he shows on the field, reinvigorating our game. He has all the ingredients to make magic at any given moment.
I can tell you some mechanical truths to Ohtani to give you context. I can't recall a hitter being able to consistently take a pitch he was beat by and still hit it for a home run to the opposite field. He turns an emergency swing, a swing meant for defense and caution, into a weapon and reduces top-notch pitchers to space dust. But he also can defeat top-notch hitters with his arm, dealing scintillating splitters and teleporting rocket fastballs at 100 mph. That combination places him alone in the sky, a rare comet that reduces us all to Rosetta space probes trying to land on its surface.