What’s It Like to Be Shohei Ohtani? Only Bo Would Know.
Mark Gubicza has an idea, and he is just the guy to make it happen. As a pitcher in the 1980s and ’90s, Gubicza was a teammate of Bo Jackson on the Kansas City Royals. As a television analyst now, he calls games for the Los Angeles Angels, the team of Shohei Ohtani. His dream pregame show would bring the two players together.
“Bo Knows Sho,” Gubicza said this week, by the Angels’ dugout at Yankee Stadium. “I think we’re finally going to get it this year.”
Ohtani, the Angels’ pitching and hitting sensation, was born in the summer of 1994, just as Jackson’s celebrated athletic career was ending. Jackson finished as a member of the Angels, of all teams, and played his final game in the very ballpark where Ohtani is forging his own two-way legend.
Jackson was a two-way star in a different sense, the only player ever to be an All-Star in baseball, as an outfielder for the Royals, and a Pro Bowler in football, as a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders. Bo didn’t know pitching, like Ohtani, but he could have.
“We would joke around: ‘Do you ever think you could close?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, if I wanted to,’” Gubicza said. “He could have done it easily, as hard as he threw. It was phenomenal just watching the stuff he did: the speed he had, the power he had. But then I look at Shohei and I could say the same about him: the speed, the power.
“I played against Deion Sanders and he was phenomenal, too, don’t get me wrong. But Bo, his presence, his athleticism and that wow factor is very similar to Shohei.”
Ohtani wowed the Bronx crowd in his first at-bat on Tuesday, ripping a line drive that sizzled into the Yankees’ bullpen in right at 116.7 miles an hour. It was the third hardest-hit ball in the majors this season.
“Nothing new to me,” said Mike Trout, a three-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award for the Angels, shaking his head and smiling after the game. “That ball was hit pretty well — and low.”
Ohtani added a stolen base on Tuesday, smashed another ball over the fence on Wednesday — the Yankees’ Aaron Judge brought it back for a juggling catch — and will be the starting pitcher at home on Friday against the Royals. He has made 11 starts in a row without allowing more than two runs, the longest active streak in the majors.
The best modern comparisons to Ohtani, Gubicza said, would be Jacob deGrom and Bryce Harper — an ace right-handed pitcher and a slugging left-handed hitter who also runs well. To be a fusion of both is unprecedented: Last season, Ohtani became the first player ever with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title and enough innings to qualify for the E.R.A. title. Only a 62-homer season from Judge kept Ohtani from repeating as the American League M.V.P.
“He wants to be that person that everyone will talk about forever — not in a ‘look at me and how good I am’ way, but just ‘look at what I’m able to accomplish,’” said Gubicza, who has spoken with an old teammate, David Cone, about Ohtani’s mind-bending feats.
“I talk to Coney all the time, ‘We couldn’t even walk after we pitched. Our shoulders, elbows, ribs, back, butt, everything was sore. And the next day he’s facing a guy throwing 98 and hitting a home run!’ It’s impossible to have that kind of discipline — for us mortals.”
Gubicza was there when Jackson became mortal, dislocating his left hip during a Raiders playoff game at Los Angeles Coliseum in January 1991. Jackson had gotten Gubicza a sideline pass, and it was Gubicza who found Jackson’s sons in the stands and brought them to their father.
The injury ended Jackson’s N.F.L. career after just four seasons, but he made enough of an impression to often be considered the greatest athlete ever. The author Jeff Pearlman, who wrote the definitive Jackson biography, “The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson,” in 2022, believes that, and sees Ohtani as something of an heir.
“Shohei Ohtani kind of is Bo Jackson,” Pearlman said. “It’s not exactly the same, obviously, but it’s someone doing something we’ve never seen before at an insanely high level. So, to me, it’s as close as we’ve seen to Bo Jackson.”
Their origin stories support the parallel, Pearlman said. Sports fans could see both phenomena off in the distance, but with only a vague notion of what was really coming.
At Auburn in the 1980s, Jackson was not exactly mysterious, but he was not yet ubiquitous, either: He was a running back who also hit home runs and might — or might not — do both in the pros. In Japan in the 2010s, Ohtani was well chronicled as a pitching and hitting star, but nobody knew if — or how well — he could do both in the majors.
When both players went on to exceed expectations, they held fans and peers in awe.
“They’re both mythological creatures in a world that doesn’t have that many,” Pearlman said. “It’s amazing how Ohtani actually transcends the modern thing where we have everything on video, so we feel like we’ve seen everything and it’s not that exciting. It’s like, I’ve seen Kevin Durant hit a jumper, I’ve seen Ja Morant dunk, but there’s something about Ohtani doing stuff that no one’s ever seen before that almost defies technological access to everything.”
There was no precedent for a player succeeding at football and baseball to the degree that Jackson did. And there is no precedent for a player starring as a full-time hitter and pitcher the way Ohtani is; even Babe Ruth never quite did both on a full-time basis in the same season.
Ohtani’s Tuesday homer came on the 100th anniversary of the opening of the original Yankee Stadium — The House That Ruth Built — in 1923. Ohtani said he was aware of the timing, but with free agency coming up after this season, he would not offer more than pleasantries about the setting.
“It’s a beautiful field, passionate fans,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “I always look forward to playing here.”
Historically, Ohtani has not hit well at Yankee Stadium: Though he had four homers in 12 games before Thursday’s matinee, his career average in the Bronx was .140. Tuesday’s stolen base was his first in New York and his first of the season; the Angels are reluctant to risk injury to a player so valuable, but Ohtani has the speed to run like Jackson.
“Other guys were fast, believe me, but nobody looked and sounded as fast as Bo going down the line — it sounded like a freight train,” Gubicza said. “Now, with Shohei, you don’t even hear him. He’s got the Willie Wilson-type strides.”
Wilson was another long-ago Royals teammate, a batting champion and a stolen base leader. But for sheer volume of elite skills, Ohtani nearly stands alone.
“I just don’t know how you throw 101 and hit a ball 115 miles per hour off the bat,” Gubicza said. “I don’t know how you do that.”
Bo knows — or at least knows something like it. Now Gubicza just needs to get him on the pregame show with Ohtani.