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Make Believe Mailer #96: A History Of Shohei Ohtani's Walk-Up / Pitching Songs
Shohei Ohtani guitar picks…somehow, multiple versions exist
Shohei Ohtani towers over Japanese pop culture in 2023. There’s plenty of songs, TV shows, movies, internet memes, characters (shout out Chikawa), anime, video games, scandals, conveniece store creations and beyond that have been huge over the last 12 months. I don’t think any of them come close to capturing the overall bigness of Ohtani striking out Mike Trout to win the World Baseball Classic for his home country this past spring, the defining image of the year.
There’s nothing new about Ohtani demanding attention in his home country. He’s been a phenomenon since high school, owing to his excellence as a pitcher and a hitter…coupled with his determination to actually pursue both as a pro. And…he did! Ohtani wowed on both sides while playing for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, winning an MVP and a championship over his five years in Nippon Professional Baseball. Then he kept it going after moving over to Major League Baseball, where he further solidified his sensation status — and arguably became the only baseball player to really move the needle on the sport in a general mainstream way over the last half decade, though hey Bad Bunny is trying to change that a bit — with the Los Angeles Angels. He won his second American League MVP award today, the catalyst for this post.
Everything Ohtani related got massive attention in Japan this year. You had the WBC of course, but also everything playing out over this past season, from complete games to homeruns to him goofing around. I could see it nearly everyday on morning TV shows, as Angels’ games lined up nicely with the AM programs. The impending bonanza surrounding his free agency this offseason will easily eclipse any, like, political coverage this winter. The MVP announcement was breaking news Friday morning. For the rest of the day, news and social media fixated on the dog Ohtani sat with as he heard he had won the award. I don’t blame anyone, just look at this.
Ohtani is a special athlete that brings one of the most unique skill sets to professional baseball ever. Yet he also boasts a lesser appreciated two-way accomplishment — the ability to have two theme songs at once during the season. Since debuting in 2013, Ohtani has had at least one walk-up song for when he bats…and one tune greeting him as he takes the mound on days he starts. Players having multiple walk-up songs, sure. But here, Ohtani has to select music representing both sides of his game, making for a fun thought experiment about what he picks means…and, as he’s become a legitimate global superstar, how he intersects with music.
As Ohtani enters a new era of his career, now seems like a good time to look back at his on-field musical history…what it says about him, and what it says about Japanese entertainment in the world today.
2013 Season (Nippon Ham Fighters)
Pitching: Huey Lewis & The News “The Power Of Love” Final ERA — 4.23
Footage of Ohtani’s first professional start as a pitcher…with Huey Lewis doing his thing over the PA.
Seemingly every corner of Shohei Ohtani’s life has been investigated by fans and media members. Entire books have been written about him, his sleep system warrants entire articles from tabloids and his childhood has been documented at length. And yet, despite this attention to detail to Ohtani, I can’t find a single article or “Sho-bae” blog explaining why Huey Lewis & The News “The Power Of Love” soundtracked his historic first season as a pitcher in NPB.
Like…what the hell happened here? It’s a total outlier in terms of songs he’s used over his career. It’s seemingly out of step with his age. The only theory fans put out on assorted websites is that “The Power Of Love” appears in Back To The Future…so maybe Ohtani likes that movie? No proof, just a big leap of faith in his entertainment consumption.
Whatever the reason, part of me thinks this is also the most earnest selection of the Ohtani gametime catalog. As the years go on…and especially when he gets to Anaheim…he becomes much more aware about his status and his brand, with the music he selects is a touch more self aware. I don’t think there’s anything deep about Huey Lewis. Maybe his parents liked it, maybe it stuck with him at an early middle-school sports day, heck perhaps he really does love Marty McFly. It’s a very young-brain selection, and I love it because of that1.
The batting song is a pretty ho-hum rock number from Sapporo band TRIPLANE, who wrote an original song commemorating the Fighters 10th season in Hokkaido the same year Ohtani joined the team. It’s pretty meh.
2014 Season (Nippon Ham Fighters)
Hitting: miwa “Kittokanau” Final Batting Average — .274
Pitching: Perfume “Party Maker” Final ERA — 2.61
Is…is Ohtani just like me??????
Absolutely not, and bless him for that. But I’ve always been thrileld by his use of Perfume in his first great year pitching, becuase of course I am. Again, though, very little information exists about why he went with “Party Maker” or miwa’s you-can-do-it! pop number “Kittokanau.” According to Yahoo! Answers Japan — just as dumb as the U.S. version — the songs were selected by someone else for him, because “he doesn’t really care about music.” I kind of don’t buy that, on a goopy level because I think anyone who genuinely has zero interest in music at all is a sicko, but more realistically because Ohtani is always being photographed wearing headphones. Unless he’s listening to a voice repeat “sinker…sinker…sinker” over and over again, he clearly likes something.
2015 - 2020 Season (Nippon Ham Fighters / Los Angeles Angels)
Hitting: Olly Murs Featuring Travie McCoy “Wrapped Up” Final Batting Average — .202 (2015), .322 (2016), .332 (2017), .285 (2018), .286 (2019), .190 (2020)
You can briefly hear the Olly Murs’ song at the start of this highlight.
One of the rare instances where Ohtani has talked about the song soundtracking his walk-ups. After hitting home runs in three straight games during his first homestand as part of the Los Angeles Angels, Ohtani told Japanese media he had stuck with the Olly Murs’ song — which soundtracked some of his best years in NPB, including his MVP-and-Nippon-Series-winning 2016 campaign — because he was “used to it,” adding “although I’m in a different place, I think I could enter the batter’s box with a somewhat normal rhythm.” Approprately, after recording a truly wretched (and very under-discussed!) 2020 season at the plate, the uptempo security blanket was tossed aside.
2015 Season (Nippon Ham Fighters)
Pitching: FIELD OF VIEW “DAN DAN Kokoro Hikareteku” Final ERA — 2.24
OK, so this is the weird one…it looks like Ohtani ditched this song at some point in the 2015 season in favor of our next track, but I don’t really know the context for why. I wasn’t following NPB in 2015! But it’s just a blip in the greater story, so I think it’s fine to move on. Enjoy the fan-made highlight MV above though!
2015 - 2023 Season (Nippon Ham Fighters / Los Angeles Angels)
Pitching: Afrojack Vs. Thirty Seconds To Mars “Do Or Die” (Remix) Final ERA — 2.24 (2015), 1.86 (2016), 3.20 (2017), 3.31 (2018), 37.80 (20202), 3.18 (2021), 2.33 (2022), 3.14 (2023)
I lied above when I said this entry was inspired by Ohtani’s MVP win. I sketched this one out back in July, actually, during a particulary depressing period of time wherein I was bracing for the worst. It was two weeks before the MLB trade deadline, and I was bracing for Shohei Ohtani to be moved.
I’m not someone who shares personal darkness or ugly revelations about myself with people who come to read about Japanese music or whatever I’m throwing up on this Substack. Yet you, dear reader, should know a painful truth, one illuminating a nagging hurt at the core of my soul…
…I am a fan of the Los Angeles Angels, since I was a kid.3
I don’t have a normal relationship to Shohei Ohtani as a result. As someone long put off by online fandom in the 2010s and still pretty skeeved out by “stans” in 2023, Ohtani choosing the Angels…kind of out of nowhere!…nudged me into a mindset that I imagine is the closest I’ll ever come to understanding how ARMY feel. I became sensitive about slander…yes, SLANDER, you were all wrong…aimed at Ohtani in his first year, largely from America’s most boorish and reactionary demographic (Yankees fans). I’ve muttered ill under my breath aimed at sports writers talking smack about Ohtani or the Angels in a way I never did in the years before. The number of Houston sports accounts I’ve blocked on sight, almost as therapy…
Had he chosen any other team in MLB, I would have watched his career and thought “oh that’s neat” while cheering for my mediocre-to-bad franchise4 of choice. Instead, he ended up on the Angels, resulting in some of the best sports moments I’ve ever seen and also a constant feeling of agony at how the team as a whole has been pretty junky. I’ve bought so much Ohtani merch, had tons of conversations with people in Japan about him just becuase of hats I wear that I’ve owned for like a decade, and even wandered around his hometown trying to “understand” him more. At the same time, the failings of the Angels to do anything with Ohtani added a stress to my March - September calendar that has been completely unnecessary but really really heavy…made bulkier by recent trade-deadline murmurings “oh they got to trade him” and the more stinging “the Angels are wasting Ohtani, he’s going to leave when he can.” Somehow, this all felt…personal, even though it absolutely isn’t.
I guess that’s what makes sports compelling…and the draw of fandom in the first place.
Anyway! Ohtani appears to keep going back to this Afrojack number for his pitching days because, like “Wrapped Up” above, he wanted to carry on the good vibes and killer stats he achieved back in Hokkaido when he started using it. Respect to that, though it results in the sorta wild detail that the best baseball player…ever?…prominently warms up to a song featuring Jared Leto on vocals.
Seventh-Inning Stretch: Shohei Ohtani Singing “Despacito”
2018 Season (Los Angeles Angels, Literally One Time In Spring Training As A Pinch Hitter)
Hitting: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu “Fashion Monster”
God, I really wanted to turn this into a whole “does Ohtani secretly love Yasutaka Nakata’s production??” thing, but reports from the Spring Training game where this happened reveal this was Ohtani’s teammates selecting a song for him, one which he says they chose to “tease” him, and wasn’t his preferred tune. Still, this introduces a stranger question…how did his teammates learn about “Fashion Monster?” Did Japanese media tell them about it? Did Ian Kinsler read Make Believe Melodies?
It does turn out that Kyary is a huge Ohtani fan, and she watched him play at Angel Stadium in 2022. Thankfully, one of those accounts that just films Ohtani everyday when he plays captured it.
I also note that according to a few sources, when runners were in scoring position this year and Ohtani was up, they would play Lil Wayne’s “Showtime” which is awesome, but I also can’t find any clips of it so not sure if it happened / how long it lasted. But there’s some Japanese comments in the YouTube.
2021 Season (Los Angeles Angels)
Hitting: ALI Featuring AKLO “Lost In Paradise” Final Batting Average — .257
Among all of his athletic accomplishments, Ohtani is also one of the most important figures in the ongoing Japanese pop culture boom of the 2020s. I’m both biased as a fan and someone living in Japan where media treats him as akin to a world leader, but he’s cultivated the kind of fandom in person and online that like, idols have generated. His presence brings with it a wave of other “cool, Japan” dressing…I’ve managed to see Ohtani once at Angel Stadium, and the amount of katakana, Namco ads and general Japanese flourishes blew my mind. If you’ll indulge me5 in a theory, he’s also a great example of something I’ve written about before…how “Galapagos Syndrome,” the state of Japan being isolated from technological and cultural trends, actually results in people finding odd evolutions or seemingly outdated tech (Kei Trucks, flip phones, rock music) cool as hell. I love that one of the potential faces of “Neo Galapagos” is a beloved athlete/idol playing…baseball, a sport that, from where I’m sitting, feels super irrelevant in America.
Here’s a perfect whirlwind of soft power on display, with Ohtani spending 2021 coming up to home plate behind a globally popular song (this one killed on Spotify that year) sercing as a theme to the even more popular Jujutsu Kaisen anime series.
2022 Season (Los Angeles Angels)
One of these feels like that sneaky marketing ability Ohtani and his inner circle possess. The other is uhhhhhh making me think it’s really bright EDM coming out of those headphones when he’s walking into a stadium? It is funny they both possess a kind of big-stadium rhythm behind them, but in very different shades.
2023 Season (Los Angeles Angels)
The Angels did not trade Ohtani at the deadline, and actually did something I haven’t felt from the team in years…offered hope. After a winning streak capped off by a genuinely wild day from Ohtani both as pitcher and hitter, the team became buyers and acquired pieces that, in theory, would help it push towards the playoffs. That dread of seeing one of my favorite players shipped out to, I don’t know, Baltimore vanished replaced by an honest-to-goodness giddiness at being in the race…which could also maybe convince Ohtani to stick around for the future.
Then outfielder Taylor Ward took a fastball to the face in Toronto two days later, followed by the Angels slumping at the worst possible time. All those shiny new players acquired in trades? Turned out to mostly be duds, and most of them were gone by September…when the team was well out of the playoff race and Ohtani the pitcher was shut down due to injury.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, the intense fandom — the sort that I imagine Swifties and Blinks and whatever the hell Miley Cyrus’ people are called have for the artists they have too much passion for — turned to something approaching acceptance. Honestly, the Angels and Ohtani’s future were the biggest source of stress for me at points this summer, which is absolutely bonkers of course but also something I think a lot of people can relate to, sports or pop or otherwise. Yet all of the dissapointment and chatter and negativity just…faded. It is what it is6.
Maybe Ohtani resigns with the Angels this offseason. It’s farfetched, but not totally impossible7. Yet I also am not expecting it to happen. I won’t be going to MLB Trade Rumors or looking at Twitter fan accounts or seeking out any rumors about it. I’ll wait for the inevitable “breaking news” message on LINE News, and make peace with reality.
Perhaps I’ve learned a lesson that Ohtani himself seems to have come across through his walk-up music. For six years, I became used to Ohtani being on the team, and his starts and at bats were a familiar rhythm to large chunks of time during my years, whether working or following scores while on a train. Sometimes the memories were good, sometimes they were embarassingly intense8 and a lot of other times they were not so great. But I experienced them, and am probably more enriched becuase of it. Yet now that era is over, and it’s OK to try something new out. I’ll be OK with what was…and hopefully Ohtani will drop the Thirty Second To Mars remix.
Written by Patrick St. Michel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Twitter — @mbmelodies
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He’s also not the only Japanese player to use “The Power Of Love” as pitching music. Kaima Taira, a player on my favorite NPB team (and a future MLB pick-up, I bet) used it during the 2022 season.
Told you it was wretched
If you don’t follow baseball, this is because the Angels are historically a forgettable team save for a pretty fantastic run in the 2000s, but in a market where they are always second fiddle to a more popular, more prestigious franchise (the Dodgers), which results in a weird dynamic. For sports fans…I’m also a lifelong Clippers fan, so I do this to myself!
Fuck you Arte Moreno.
lolz you’ve been doing that this whole post.
You could also read this as the Angels absolutely snuffed out my joy for baseball this year. Fuck you Arte Moreno.
OK, the small lies I tell myself that this could happen: 1. Ohtani might be loyal to the Angels, he chose them the first time around afterall 2. Angels will absolutely overpay for a player who might have passed his peak years 3. Good young core! 4. My wildcard theory…by staying with the Angels, Ohtani himself will never be the focus of fan or media hate. It will always be the franchise that has “wasted” generational talents, even if his numbers decrease as he ages. Try that in Boston or Chicago.
When Ohtani struck out Trout — his Angels teammate — to win the WBC, I litearlly had to scream into a pillow because I was so happy for Ohtani but absolutely devastaed for Trout. I genuinely felt a new emotion that day, which I thought I was too old for.