Can Ohtani do for SoCal what Ichiro did for Seattle?

So far, Shohei Ohtani is so-so.

On the mound, the Angels’ Japanese phenom has shown flashes of brilliance, not dominance. At the plate he’s yet to show the power or speed or bat-to-ball skills that scouts have long seen in Ohtani.

  • Shohei Ohtani is introduced by the Angels during a press conference at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Shohei Ohtani is introduced by the Angels during a press conference at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • An Ohtani fan waits for autographs outside Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    An Ohtani fan waits for autographs outside Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Ohtani fans show their support as the Angels’ take on the Milwaukee Brewers at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Ohtani fans show their support as the Angels’ take on the Milwaukee Brewers at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A young Angels’ fans looks at merchandise next to two Ohtani-themed items at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    A young Angels’ fans looks at merchandise next to two Ohtani-themed items at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Fans try to get Shohei Ohtani’s attention after the first official Spring Training workout for Angels’ pitchers and catchers at the Tempe Diablo Stadium complex in Tempe, Ariz. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Fans try to get Shohei Ohtani’s attention after the first official Spring Training workout for Angels’ pitchers and catchers at the Tempe Diablo Stadium complex in Tempe, Ariz. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Japanese fans show their support as Shohei Ohtani is introduced by the Angels during a press conference at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Japanese fans show their support as Shohei Ohtani is introduced by the Angels during a press conference at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Fans looks through the fence hoping to see the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani during the first official spring training workout for pitchers and catchers at the Tempe Diablo Stadium complex in Tempe, Ariz. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Fans looks through the fence hoping to see the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani during the first official spring training workout for pitchers and catchers at the Tempe Diablo Stadium complex in Tempe, Ariz. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Japanese fans show their support as Shohei Ohtani is introduced by the Angels during a press conference at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Japanese fans show their support as Shohei Ohtani is introduced by the Angels during a press conference at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Fans wait for autographs outside Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Fans wait for autographs outside Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)

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It’s only spring training, of course; sample sizes are minuscule. Also, the 23-year-old is making a huge jump of culture and competition, from Japan’s Nippon Baseball League to America’s Major Leagues.

But, so far, Ohtani is not Babe Ruth.

And that might matter more than you’d think.

There’s zero doubt that Ohtani’s on-the-field performance will help determine how the Angels fare this season. What’s less understood is what Ohtani’s performance — particularly if he catches fire as the first two-way big leaguer in recent history — might mean to Southern California’s economy.

Ohtani, who signed with the Angels in December, has been a pretty big spring training story in the U.S. But he’s a much bigger deal in his home country, where his celebrity transcends sports.

Dozens of Japanese reporters and photographers are in Arizona this month working full time to tell the Ohtani story back home. Every game he’s in — every strikeout on the mound or at the plate — is a potential Ohtani headline in Japan.

Japanese fans and media because of Ohtani’s potential to transform the American big leagues as a two-way player, similar to the way Ichiro Suzuki once proved Japanese position players could be among the best in the world.

And it appears the Angels, who this year will pay Ohtani the major league minimum of $545,000, are ready to capitalize on that.

Revenue generator

Every recent Rose Parade has included a high school marching band from Japan. And every December, to prep for their appearance in the Rose Parade, that Japanese band practices in the parking lot of Anaheim Stadium.

Most years, band members simply practice in the parking lot while their families go sight-seeing at Disneyland, Los Angeles and San Diego. They show little interest in shopping at the Angels’ stadium store, said Etsuko Brodnick, a staffer with the Green Band Association, which brings the Japanese bands to the Rose Parade.

This past December — days after Ohtani signed — was different.

Some 70 parents of band members descended on the Angels store, spending upwards of $100 per family on Ohtani shirts plus Angels caps, blankets, Rally Monkeys and related swag, Brodnick said. The group even took a photo in front of Ohtani banners unfurled at the stadium’s main entrance.

“They all knew about Ohtani and the Angels; more than I did,” Brodnick, who lives in Anaheim, said in Japanese.

And Ohtani figures to be much more than a retail force.

Last month, during Ohtani’s first press conference at spring training, the Angels announced that they’ve struck a sponsorship agreement with Funai Electric. The Japanese consumer electronics company will sponsor the backdrop at Angels press conferences and advertise behind home plate in spring training and the regular season.

Funai, which has an office in Torrance, aims “to establish its brand and increase brand awareness both in Japan and the U.S.,” the company stated in a Japanese press release.

That goal could be met if Japanese baseball fans see enough of Ohtani in an Angels uniform.

“He’s going to drive attendance and everything that comes with attendance, like merchandise sales. And (he’s going to) bring a lot of international notoriety to the Angels,” said David Carter, executive director of USC Marshall Sports Business Institute, when asked about the marketing power of Ohtani.

“It gives the Angels the chance to amplify their brand on a global basis, and (to) generate revenue on a local basis.”

The Angels have had Japanese players before, but none had Ohtani’s potential to thrive on the field and as a business vehicle. Shigetoshi Hasegawa was a solid 28-year-old starter in 1997 when he came to the Angels from Japan, and spent five seasons in Anaheim as a set-up reliever. In 2010, Hideki Matsui — considered one of the best Japanese sluggers of all time — hit 21 home runs for the Angels. But it was his only season with the club and, at 36, his best seasons were already behind him.

Ohtani, his spring training blahs notwithstanding, is widely viewed as the most talented player to leave Japan since Suzuki, who was the first Japanese-born position player to sign with a major league club.

And the Angels can control Ohtani for at least six years.

“That allows prospective partners to make longer term agreements, etc,” Angels spokesman Tim Mead wrote via email.

“I think we will have a better sense of the business impact (of Ohtani) a bit later in the season.”

Perhaps a better comparison for Ohtani is Suzuki, who came to the Seattle Mariners in 2001 as an already established legend in Japan. Though he’s still playing (at 44, Suzuki just signed a deal to return to the Mariners) he’s had a spectacular career in the United States.

His success on the field transformed Seattle’s tourism industry.

Before Suzuki took Seattle by storm, the city wasn’t a big destination for Japanese tourists, said Marjorie Dewey, president of Connect-Worldwide Japan who runs the Tokyo office of Visit Seattle, a non-profit economic development agency that promotes tourism in that city.

But in Suzuki’s first year the man known worldwide as Ichiro had a season for the ages. He led the American League in hitting and stolen bases and won the Most Valuable Player award.

As Suzuki proved himself in the big leagues, tourists from Japan — now the world’s third largest economy — flocked to Seattle.

Japanese travel agencies offered package tours to Seattle centered around Mariners’ games. The name “Seattle Mariners” and the city of Seattle was mentioned on Japanese TV and newspapers everyday, all thanks to Suzuki.

As a result, the number of visitors to Seattle from Japan jumped from about 60,000 per year to 120,000 at its peak, Dewey said. The Mariners’ home stadium, Safeco Field, and nearby hotels even began posting Japanese signage and serving Japanese food.

In turn, those tourists helped other businesses as they spent money outside the stadium, Dewey said.

“Ichiro was a major reason Seattle became known as a tourist destination among the Japanese people,” Dewey said, in Japanese, in a phone interview.

Dewey doesn’t think Ohtani will make the same economic impact. For one thing, these days there are other star Japanese stars players in Major League Baseball — pitchers Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, among others — to split fans’ attention.

For another, the Anaheim/Southern California area isn’t Seattle. Disneyland, the beach, Hollywood; all are factors that drive tourist dollars, including Japanese money, to the region. Whatever Ohtani might add to that figures to be relatively small.

“It will depend on how much Japanese media coverage Ohtani gets,” Dewey said.

Much will depend on the novelty of Ohtani’s career. If he’s only a good or even great pitcher, or a great hitter, he’ll be a fine producer on the field, for the Angels, but not a huge marketing draw.

But if he can somehow excel at both? Interest in Ohtani, in Japan and around the world, could explode — along with his marketing potential.

Comparing the marketing power of Ohtani and Suzuki is, according to USC’s Carter, “an extremely tricky question.”

Two-way game changer?

In Japan, Ohtani, at 23, performed at an all-star level as both a pitcher and a hitter. In the major leagues, he will be considered an amazing player — and a huge story — if he can be even above average at both.

The Angels on-the-field plan for Ohtani — to use him as a starting pitcher and a designated hitter a few days a week — should drive attendance, Carter said. And now that Suzuki is back with the Mariners, who are in the same American League West division as the Angels, that will only add more interest for Japanese fans (the Angels will first host the Mariners July 10).

But a key for the Angels’ marketing is to keep Ohtani healthy and follow through on their strategy to play him two ways, said USC’s Carter.

Ken Yanagisawa, the president of PHR Management, which runs Anaheim Majestic Garden Hotel, said he hopes to see as much as a 20 percent increase in the number of Japanese tourists to Orange County.

“Anaheim has enough attractive spots other than theme parks, like the Packing House, to make it a popular destination for Japanese tourists,” Dewey said.

“Right now, most people who visit Disneyland just stay around the park. But people who come to see baseball might try other places.”

The Orange County Business Council recently selected Ohtani as one of its six “Game Changers” for 2018.

Lucy Dunn, chief executive of the Business Council, said one reason for the designation is simply Ohtani’s decision to sign with the Angels over bigger market teams, like the Yankees and the Dodgers.

But she added that Ohtani could strengthen Orange County’s bond with Japanese companies. That includes, she said, Japanese companies that have operations in Southern California and others that might consider expanding here.

It’s a lot riding on a baseball player.

“Having (Ohtani) come to the U.S. has got to be a real game changer for us,” Dunn said. “It’s… global connectivity.”

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Connor Seabold, Taylor Bryant lead Cal State Fullerton past UC Irvine

FULLERTON – Cal State Fullerton suffered a setback last weekend when it dropped the final two games of a three-game series at Cal Poly.

With every Big West Conference baseball game meaning so much for the second-place Titans, ace right-hander Connor Seabold was charged with stopping that little bit of bleeding on Friday night.

Seabold was not at his best, but he picked up his sixth win of the season, courtesy of a two-run seventh-inning that broke a tie and carried the 14th-ranked Titans (25-14, 7-3) to a 5-3 victory over UC Irvine (15-24, 2-8) before 1,826 at Goodwin Field.

Seabold (6-4) pitched 7-1/3 innings. He gave up three runs on 12 hits, walked one and struck out four. He threw 93 pitches and came out after walking Adrian Damla with one out in the eighth.

Relief pitcher Brett Conine got the final two outs of the inning, then pitched the ninth for his ninth save.

The winning runs came off UCI relief pitcher Michael Martin, who had come on in relief of Ryan Johnston (2-2) with a runner on first and no one out. With Sahid Valenzuela on via a walk, Timmy Richards laid down a bunt. Martin would have had Richards at first, but his throw forced second baseman Cole Kreuter (covering first) to reach across his body. Kreuter dropped the throw and the runners ended up at second and third.

Taylor Bryant stepped up and smacked a 3-and-2 pitch off Martin just past shortstop Mikey Duarte, bringing home Valenzuela for a 4-3 lead.

Dillon Persinger then delivered a sacrific fly to right that plated Richards.
Bryant spoke about his big hit off Martin.

“I was just thinking that he has nothing to beat me with,” Bryant said. “He threw me some off-speed early in the count, tried to sneak a heater past me with two strikes that I just got a piece of. So I was just looking fastball and adjusting to off-speed, kind of just trying to see the ball up and put something in play hard.”

Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook noted that half of the hits given up by Seabold weren’t hit very hard.

“They probably had 12 hits and six of them probably didn’t go 400 feet combined,” said Vanderhook, who nevertheless said UCI did a good job at the plate.

Seabold gave the Anteaters some credit as well.

“I thought I made pitches and they hit them,” Seabold said. “Obviously, 12 hits, I thought for the most part I was locating really well. They either shot it the other way or muscled it over the infield.

“But I’ve just got to tip my cap to them; they did a good job. The offense picked me up tonight.”

Chris Vargas started for the Anteaters. He lasted just two-plus innings and gave up three runs on two hits while walking four. Johnston did a fine job in relief, going four-plus innings while allowing one run on three hits, walking two and striking out three.

The Titans got to Vargas in the bottom of the second inning. Vargas walked Bryant and Persinger to open the inning, then designated hitter JT McLellan laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to advance the runners to second and third. Chris Hudgins followed with a two-run single to center field for a 2-0 lead.

Vargas walked Hunter Cullen and Zach Weisz hit an infield single to third to load the bases. But Vargas escaped further trouble when he induced Scott Hurst to ground into an inning-ending double play.

When Vargas walked Valenzuela to start the third, he was pulled for Ryan Johnston. A sacrifice bunt by Timmy Richards moved Valenzuela to second, Johnston walkked Bryant and then Persinger drove in Valenzuela with a single to center for a 3-0 Fullerton lead.

With McLellan at the plate, Johnston wild-pitched the runners to second and third. But Johnston struck out McLellan and then Hudgins flied out to deep center.

Seabold got into some hot water in the fourth. But with runners at second and third, he got Parker Coss to line out to right field and Kreuter to hit back to the box.

UCI scored twice in the top of the fifth on a two-run bloop single by Mikey Duarte with the bases loaded. Just before that, Seabold struck out Keston Hiura looking on a 92 miles-per-hour fastball at the knees for the second out of the inning. Hiura came into the game leading the Big West with a .402 average. He doubled in the first inning and was hit by a pitch in the fourth.

The Anteaters had four singles in the inning. Two were bloopers, one was to deep shortstop.

UCI tied the score in the top of the seventh on a double by Adam Alcantara and an RBI single to center by Parker Coss. It would have been worse, but after Hiura singled to lead off the inning, Mikey Duarte hit into what appeared to be a force play at second. Hiura was called for interference, and Duarte was called out as well.

Seabold picked off Coss, who had gone to second on the throw home, to end the inning.

The three-game series continues Saturday and Sunday at Fullerton.

NOTE

The Titans found out Friday that sophomore outfielder Ruben Cardenas (back) is out for the rest of the season. He played in 16 games and hit .293 with three home runs and 18 RBI. He had a slugging percentage of .552 in 58 at-bats.

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