By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor
The scene was perfectly familiar to any American baseball fan: a mammoth home run sails into the grandstand, followed by a mad scrum for the ball.
This one on Sunday had the enhancement of being clubbed by the most famous baseball player on the planet, its value virtually incalculabe. Shohei Ohtani’s blast in Japan’s World Baseball Classic game against Australia was hit so far at Tokyo Dome that it nearly bounced off his own huge likeness above the seats in right field.
It was Ohtani’s first homer in the tournament, a souvenir that could fetch a handsome reward for whomever retrieved it and was able to escape the fray relatively unscathed.
What followed, however, was astounding, simulaneously heartwarming and almost shockingly unimaginable in this age when no item is beyond becoming a commodity.
The fan who ended up with the ball immediately passed it around to scores of other spectators, selflessly allowing them the opportunity to pose with it for photos and share in the truly once-in-a-lifetime moment.
The announcers on the television broadcast were almost at a loss for words, as the cameras repeatedly cut back to the delighted fans marveling in actually being able to touch the ball hit by their national hero.
At one point, the young woman is seen speaking to a person presumed to be a WBC official. It wasn’t clear if she kept the ball or offered to have it sent to Ohtani, for whom it would also be a precious keepsake.
Japan is well-known worldwide for its civility at sporting events – World Cup soccer fans are famous for cleaning up after themselves at the stadiums following matches. It’s not only the fans, however, as Samurai Japan pitcher Roki Sasaki demonstrated Monday.
In Saturday’s victory over the Czech Republic, the fireballing Sasaki lost control of a 101-mile-per-hour pitch that struck outfielder Willie Escala on his left knee. It was a terrifying moment, with Escala on the ground for several minutes. He bravely stood, made his way to first base after a few practice sprints, and finished out the game.
Again, that’s part of baseball, since the game’s earliest days. What is uniquely Japanese is Sasaki showing up at the Czech team’s hotel the next morning with a couple bags of candy and snacks, and a heart full of apologies.
Among the major team sports, baseball has often been described as “the gentleman’s game.” In this era of ballooning egos and eye-popping salaries, how comforting to see that characterization shining through at the very highest level of play. This is when the game is at its best.