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BASEBALL | Shohei Ohtani Named AP Male Athlete of the Year

The Los Angeles Angels superstar is the first Japanese man to win the prestigious award.

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Shohei Ohtani's landmark season included 46 home runs, a record for Japanese players in Major League Baseball.

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Since 1931, The Associated Press Athlete of the Year awards have been presented to top male and female athletes.

A voting panel of American sports editors determines the two winners each year. 

Ninety years after baseball standout Pepper Martin of the St. Louis Cardinals was chosen as the first recipient of the AP Male Athlete of the Year honor, Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani was honored with the same award.

Ohtani is the 2021 AP Male Athlete of the Year, it was announced on Tuesday, December 28 by the global news organization, which had selected tennis player Naomi Osaka as the 2020 AP Female Athlete of the Year.

In explaining why Ohtani was given the award, The Associated Press spelled it out this way: “With so many fine-tuned athletes constantly pushing each other to the peak of human potential, we can experience unprecedented demonstrations of sporting brilliance every week of our lives. But it’s truly rare to witness anything that isn’t fundamentally just a better, more prolific version of something we’ve already seen.

“That’s why Shohei Ohtani’s astonishing redefinition of modern baseball captured the world’s attention so vividly in 2021 — and that’s why the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way superstar is the winner of The Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year Award.”

The 27-year-old Ohtani, who was the unanimous pick for the American League MVP award, joins the likes of boxer Muhammad Ali (1974), golfer Tiger Woods (1997-2000, 2006), NBA superstar Michael Jordan (1991-93) and swimmer Michael Phelps (2008, 2012) as winners of the prestigious award. 

Ohtani is the first Japanese man to win the award.

In 2021, Ohtani, the Angels designated hitter, belted a career-high 46 home runs and a league-best eight triples, stole 26 bases, scored 103 runs and drove in 100 runs. He won the Silver Slugger Award for designated hitters.

As a pitcher, the hard-throwing right-hander went 9-2 in 23 starts. He struck out 156 batters and issued 44 walks in 130⅓ innings.

Ohtani appeared in 155 total games after injuries took a toll on him in previous MLB seasons.

Looking ahead, Ohtani said he’s focused on continuing to improve as a player.

“I’m a student of the game, so I do feel like I need to grow every year, and I think I’ve been able to do that,” Ohtani said in a statement through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara.

Not since Babe Ruth’s pre-New York Yankees days (he was sold by the Boston Red Sox to New York before the 1920 season) had a two-way star been as dominating on the mound and as a slugger penciled in the lineup at another position. In 1918, Ruth’s next-to-last year as a regular pitcher before becoming a full-time outfielder, he was the last moundsman to have double digits in home runs (11) and wins (13). In 1919, he belted 29 homers and won nine games.

Summing up the historic nature of Ohtani’s 2021 season, he came one victory shy of equaling the Bambino’s feat from more than a century ago.

Angels manager Joe Maddon was not at a loss for words when he commented on what Ohtani had already accomplished near the end of the season.

“He’s doing something we haven’t seen in our lifetimes, but he’s also doing it at the very highest level of hitting and pitching,” Maddon was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “He’s doing more than other players, but he’s also doing it better than almost everybody else on that field, and those are the greatest players in the game, his contemporaries. He’s playing their game, but he’s also playing a different game.”

Angels outfielder Mike Trout said Ohtani had an amazing season.

“At times, I felt like I was back in Little League,” the three-time AL MVP said of seeing Ohtani’s exploits on a daily basis, according to The Associated Press. “To watch a player throw eight innings, hit a home run, steal a base and then go play right field was incredible.”

Author: Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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Ed Odeven is a longtime sports journalist who previously worked for The Japan Times as its chief basketball reporter for nearly 14 years. He also covered a wide range of other sports for the newspaper, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Games. A graduate of Arizona State University, Odeven worked for several newspapers in the Grand Canyon State before moving to Japan. He has freelanced for dozens of media outlets around the world.