“It has completely changed my life.” What it’s like to cover for Shohei Ohtani

Naoyuki Yanagihara’s life mostly revolves around Shohei Ohtani.

If he posts on his Instagram page, Yanagihara writes about it. Wherever Ohtani travels in baseball, Yanagihara follows. In spring training, if Ohtani isn’t already at the Tempe, Arizona facility, he waits for his car to come out.

Yanagihara, who writes for Sports Nippon, a Japanese all-sports newspaper, has been covering Ohtani since 2013, the year he made his debut with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.

Members of the media await the arrival of Angels’ Shohei Ohtani at Tempe Diablo Stadium in 2018.

(Ben Margot/Associated Press)

Yanagihara does not live in the U.S. His home is in Tokyo, where he lives with his wife and 9-month-old baby half the year, spending the other half living in hotels in the U.S.

“Every day I make a phone call, a video call to my wife,” he said. “Around 19:00 or 20:00, so the morning is over in Japan. I always struggle with jet lag.’

This is the life of a Japanese sportswriter assigned to cover the country’s biggest star playing Major League Baseball. Since signing with the Angels in December 2017, Ohtani has been in every spring training lineup and nearly every game Ohtani has been in.

And depending on what happens with the Angels this season, there will likely be dozens who could follow Ohtani to another city if he signs elsewhere in free agency or moves before the season ends.

“It has completely changed my life,” she said. “I have to follow him almost every day, every year.”

Ohtani is better known to Japanese media and culture than Hideo Nomo, who spent nearly seven of his 12 MLB seasons with the Dodgers. And Ohtani is even bigger than Ichiro Suzuki, who spent most of his 18-plus seasons in the big leagues with the Seattle Mariners.

Ohtani isn’t just the biggest baseball star the country has ever had; its global reach already makes this point clear.

“He’s a Japanese idol, an icon,” Yanagihara said.

“It’s really important for us to take videos and take pictures too because (he’s) so handsome and cute and like a pop star,” added Taro Abe, who has been on the Ohtani beat for the past two years. Another Japanese newspaper, the Chunichi Shimbun.

Does that make her Japan’s Beyoncé? Abe and another writer, Natsuko Aoike, who writes for the Japanese tabloid Tokyo Sports, made skeptical faces at the question.

Maybe Ohtani, in Japan, is even better known than that.

In Japan, covering baseball players is different than in the United States. Members of the media are welcome everywhere except in the clubhouse. Relationships with players are built outside the stadiums. If a reporter needs to approach a player, they will wait, for example, in the lobby leading to the player’s parking lot. Getting to know a player might involve the writer going out to dinner with that player or their families.

The Angels' Shohei Ohtani, left, speaks to the media at the baseball spring training facility

The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, left, speaks to the media at the 2019 baseball spring training facility in Tempe, Ariz.

(Chris Carlson/Associated Press)

Writers who secure these kinds of basics become specialty writers in the same way that a US baseball writer can be considered an insider, except the specialty is a player’s knowledge.

Yanagihara is that kind of writer. And his role requires him to write a lot about Ohtani. Last year, it provided most of the front-page coverage in 53 newspapers. Japanese sports writing is usually short and concise, so a story can be as little as a few sentences.

On the day Ohtani hit the cycle in June 2019, Yanagihara wrote a three-page newspaper story.

“I wrote until 9 the next morning,” he said. “It was very crazy. And then I had to go to the stadium at 12:00 so I had little time to sleep. Only three hours.”

This year, with Ohtani participating in the World Baseball Classic with Japan, Yanagihara returned to Tokyo for an extra time than usual. He also flew to Miami for the finals and will then return to Tempe for spring training after Ohtani and Samurai Japan are done at the WBC. Where Ohtani goes, Yanagihara will be.

“Of course it’s hard work for me,” Yanagihara said of being a baseball reporter. “I always miss my family. But it’s my dream job.”

Throughout the season, the team of Japanese writers and photographers captures photos and videos of Ohtani from his pregame routine to hanging out with his other teammates or joking around.

That goes for spring training, too, though there are even broadcast camera operators up the hill overlooking the Tempe facility to film him driving his car through the parking lot.

“What I was told as a reporter covering baseball, you have to wait until you get in and then you have to wait until you get out,” Aoike explained from the cameras on the mound. Aoike is primarily a columnist for Tokyo Sports, but also freelances for other Japanese outlets, covering Ohtani.

“So you have to try to get images of that to make sure it arrives healthy that day. You never know, do you? There may be some problems on the road or maybe it’s too late.’

It is also a sign of respect and professionalism in Japanese culture to be in a stadium or facility while a player.

The media gathers outside the Angels dugout waiting for Shohei Ohtani to return from batting practice.

The media gathers in front of the Los Angeles Angels as they wait for Shohei Ohtani to return from batting practice before the home opener against the Oakland Athletics on Thursday, March 29, 2018, in Oakland, California.

(Ben Margot/Associated Press)

The scene is typical of all the big Japanese stars who came from Nomo to MLB in 1995.

“A lot of the media come in, they didn’t know what the media rules were (here),” Grace McNamee said of her experience working in public relations for the Dodgers when Nomo came. He currently works as a communications manager in the Angels public relations department, helping Ohtani navigate Japanese media coverage.

“And it was an educational process for all of us,” McNamee continued. “I had to create a media list to send to various teams and Major League Baseball. I translated some documents (from English to Japanese), like the rules of the club.’

The biggest difference between then and now, with Ohtani, McNamee explained, is the method of communication. For example, in Nomo’s day all interview requests went through fax or snail mail, sometimes phone calls. Now, he can send a simple text message in a group chat to convey information about chat times or schedules.

Many Japanese media covering Ohtani, like Abe and Aoike, have reported on several other Japanese baseball stars before him. Aoike has been living in the US since 2007, working as a reporter for Hideki Matsui Nippon TV. After Matsui, he also covered Suzuki with the Yankees and Kenta Maeda, who spent four years with the Dodgers.

“It was kind of a preparation for Kenta Shohei,” Aoike said. “When Shohei happened, suddenly it was all about Shohei and they asked me to go (to the stadium) every day.”

Aoike, since moving to the US, has returned to Japan to visit family once or twice a year, mostly in January, when the off-season is usually at its slowest. His life is so rooted now, even with his family back in Japan, that he feels more at home in the U.S. and driven by the goal of covering Ohtani.

His mother, who has since died, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018, Ohtani’s first year with the Angels. When Aoike visited him at the hospital, he saw others there watching on TV.

“I didn’t know how much Shohei meant to other people,” Aoike explained. “I have friends who are not baseball fans who watch him. Shohei is a feeling that I am not obliged to people, but I want to convey the story to the people of Japan.’

Therein lies the difference, though. Why Japanese writers, photographers and videographers sacrifice their lives so much to cover Ohtani.

the honor

“Before (Ohtani), it was just a job where I tried to do my best, now I want to tell stories so that some people feel good (reading about him) that day,” Aoike said.

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