Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani celebrates in the dugout with teammates after hitting a home run in the third inning against Baltimore earlier this season in Anaheim, California. Ashley Landis/Associated Press

It doesn’t happen too often. But every now and again in baseball, there’s a season that almost exclusively belongs to a player.

In 1981, it was the Year of Fernando Valenzuela. In 1985, it was the Year of Dwight Gooden. The 1998 season was the Year of McGwire and Sosa. There were other great players having great seasons, but mention the year, and the same player or players would always come to mind. They generated the buzz, got the headlines, and were the first players anyone following the sport wanted to talk about.

Drew Bonifant column photo

We’re in the middle of another one. This 2021 season is the Year of Shohei Ohtani.

The race is over. Ohtani could spend the rest of the season on rides at Disneyland and he’d still go down as 2021’s most captivating player. He’s the most obvious pick for Most Valuable Player since Barry Bonds in the early 2000s. He’s a piece of folklore, a tall tale, a cheat from a video game. He’s like Sidd Finch, or Roy Hobbs come to life.

We haven’t seen this sort of spectacle in a long time. We’ve never seen this combination of skills, the ability to hit upper-deck home runs at the plate and throw 100 miles an hour on the mound, but it goes beyond the stats, impressive as they are: 33 home runs (on pace for 61), a 1.066 OPS, and 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

It’s the freak factor. It’s the fact that he not only hits, but crushes the ball like Aaron Judge. And that he not only pitches, but overpowers hitters like Pedro Martinez did. It’s the fact that he makes baseball, the hardest sport there is, look easy. The man who leads the major leagues in home runs and is second in OPS also throws a fastball that, according to ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, has reached triple digits nine times and a splitter that has been missed on 55 percent of swings, the best rate in the majors? It defies logic.

Most important, however, it’s the fact that he’s a thrill a night, and that even casual baseball fans are captivated by what he might do next. And if there’s a sport that needs a captivating figure, it’s baseball.

The sport has had a rough go of it in the last few years. Games have gotten longer, and interest has waned. A March article in the Denver Post pointed out that attendance has gone down every year since 2015, and 2019’s total attendance of 68,494,845 was more than 10 million below 2008’s total of 78,591,125. According to that same article, while the 1978 World Series got 44.2 million viewers, the 2020 Fall Classic got 9.8 million. We’ve seen it trickle down to the local levels too, as high school teams and American Legion teams consistently battle low turnout numbers.

Baseball isn’t must-see entertainment anymore. It isn’t cool. It is for its fans, of course, but not for the people out there it wants and needs to draw. Part of the reason is the sport’s naturally slower style, but baseball has really been hurt by changes in philosophy. The embracing of analytics led to fewer pitchers going deep into games and more hitters content with striking out a lot more if it means they can hit a few more home runs, so games feature more pitching changes, strikeouts and walks, and a lot fewer balls in play.

Therefore, less action. Therefore, more “let’s see what else is on.”

These challenges could be offset to an extent by a dazzling, thrilling player, but baseball has had a hard time finding that as well. Mike Trout is superb, one of the greatest outfielders in the game’s history, but he isn’t flashy, and he is subdued off the field. Judge has a big game, but he also has a low profile away from the field. Bryce Harper has plenty of swagger and bravado and physical talent, but for all his attributes he hasn’t become the nightly show and marketing giant that Ken Griffey Jr. and Bonds and Derek Jeter were.

Lately, however, we’ve seen some players come along who look primed to fill that role. Fernando Tatis Jr. has an obvious flair to his game. So does Mookie Betts. So does Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

But Ohtani has stepped on the stage and stolen the show. Everything about him is riveting. Even the crack of his bat has a different sound to it. He steals bases, blasts homers, strikes out hitters, and does it all without an ounce of subtlety. Everything makes your jaw drop.

For a sport trying to prove that it can still be fun, Ohtani is the perfect player to use as an exhibit. His style of play and his incredible talent is entertaining to watch, and he has just as good a time doing it as we do observing it. Like Tiger Woods when he arrived in the late 90s, Ohtani is the best in the world at what he does, he knows he’s the best, and he has a whole lot of fun being the best.

Ohtani can’t fix everything that ails baseball, but he’s a step in the right direction. He’s a player a baseball fan can’t resist watching, and he’s someone even a non-baseball fan is interested in seeing just to know what the commotion is about.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything like Sho Time. And for baseball, it couldn’t have been timed any better.

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