Part of what Smith was presupposing, I suggest to Shohei, is that he has become the quote-unquote face of baseball. And that baseball needs him to act a certain way to carry the game on his shoulders. Do you feel any new pressure to represent more than yourself or your team, and instead the whole game?

“More than pressure,” he says, “I’m actually happy to hear that. It’s what I came here for, to be the best player I can. And hearing ‘the face of baseball,’ that’s very welcoming to me, and it gives me more motivation to—because I’ve only had, this was my first really good year. And it’s only one year. So it gives me more motivation to keep it up, and have more great years.”

The debate over who, exactly, should “save baseball” is an extension of the desperate sense, borne out by years of decline in popularity, that baseball needs a savior in the first place. That something is broken, or at the very least flat, and that something fundamental must pivot in order for baseball to thrive again. I ask him what he’d change about the game as it currently works. He considers, then says, “Honestly, I’m satisfied with everything. No need to make any drastic changes.”

But there is that thing, I tell him, that so many of us in the U.S. feel in our bones, where we can sense that baseball has faded in the collective cultural imagination. Particularly for a writer like this one whose love of baseball and love of movies awakened at the precise same moment, when baseball seemed to be the only topic that Hollywood was interested in. I’m talking about the golden span that produced Bull Durham (1988), Major League (1989), Field of Dreams (1989), Mr. Baseball (1992), A League of Their Own (1992), The Sandlot (1993), Rookie of the Year (1993), Angels in the Outfield (1994), and Little Big League (1994). For the record, Shohei has seen none of these, not even Mr. Baseball, about an American in the NPB, but likes Rudy (1993). How could any reasonable American eight-year-old conclude, just then, that baseball was not the most important text of an American life? And yet. After surging through the summer of Sosa and McGwire, through the steroids scandal, and then a two-decade decline into a sports landscape populated by the riches of an ascendant NBA, a resuscitated NFL, and overseas TV deals for the Premier League and Formula 1, it’s easy to look back and see how those halcyon days were always going to end, and how baseball, that unmistakable wallpaper of the American century, might fade for good from too much time in the sun.

And yet. And yet. Shohei Ohtani has something to say about my terminal prognostication.

“Baseball was born here, and I personally want baseball to be the most popular sport in the United States. So if I can contribute in any way to help that, I’m more than open to it,” he says. “But if you look at the whole baseball population in the world, it’s a lot less than, like, soccer and basketball, because only select countries are really big on baseball. But in those countries where it’s huge, it’s unbelievably huge.”

Daniel Riley

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