By Don Wanlass
Baseball does a horrible job of promoting itself, mainly because baseball owners decided 25 years or so ago that the more they promoted their star players the more money the star players wanted.
When I was growing up and falling in love with the game, the major leagues were full of stars, even when there were only 16 or 20 teams. Mickey Mantle was the biggest and brightest, but there were also Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Roger Maris, Roberto Clemente and Harmon Killebrew to name a few.
There were great pitchers, too. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale here in Los Angeles. Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal to mention a few, followed by Jim Palmer, Denny McLain and Steve Carlton.
In the 1970s, there were Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, Steve Garvey, Brooks Robinson, Carlton Fisk, Catfish Hunter, Ron Guidry. You get the idea.
The last player baseball did a good job of promoting was Ken Griffey Jr. He was the son of a major leaguer who played the game with a joy that was impossible not to notice.
Sure, he wore his baseball cap backward, but he could hit, run, catch, throw and he did it all with a style and grace and a big smile on his face.
But baseball doesn’t promote its stars anymore like the NFL and NBA do and the sport has fallen in the eyes of the public because of that.
But baseball can fix that next week. What used to be the game’s second largest national showcase — the All Star Game — takes place July 13 in Denver. The game is preceded by the Home Run Derby July 12, which often overshadows the game the next day.
Both will be worth watching this year because of one player: Shohei Ohtani. If you have been living under a rock or ignoring baseball totally, it is time you saw Ohtani in action.
If Major League Baseball — and its television partner Fox — is smart, Ohtani will get plenty of face time.
Now in his fourth year with the Los Angeles Angels, Ohtani is finally reaching the superstar status predicted for him when the Angels signed him to a free agent contract prior to the 2018 season.
He is the reincarnation of Babe Ruth in that he is all-star pitcher and a great hitter.
Ruth, the most revered star in the history of the game, was a star pitcher with the Boston Red Sox before he was a slugger with the New York Yankees. In a four-year stretch from 1915 through 1918, Ruth had a 78-37 record and his earned run average never was higher than 2.44. He won 47 games combined over 1916 and 1917.
In the 1916 and 1918 World Series he pitched 29 consecutive scoreless innings, a record that stood for 43 years until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.
During those four years, he hit 20 home runs and was sometimes used as a pinch hitter. In 1918, he started playing the outfield when he wasn’t pitching and in 1919 he became an every-day player, pitching 17 times in 130 appearances.
That off-season he was sold to the New York Yankees where he became a right fielder and the biggest slugger the game ever knew.
Now, 100 years later, Ohtani is trying to equal some of the Babe’s accomplishments, pitching and hitting. He made the American League All Star team as the starting designated hitter and a pitcher.
On the mound this year, Ohtani is 4-1 in 13 starts with a 3.49 earned run average and 87 strikeouts in 67 innings.
At the plate, Ohtani is hitting .276 with 31 home runs and 68 runs batted in. The home runs and RBI totals already surpass his career highs for a full season. Oh, and he can run the bases, too. He already has 12 stolen bases.
Ohtani will put his talents on display in Denver next week, starting with the Home Run Derby. He hits some of the longest, most majestic home runs in the game today. That should be fun to watch.
If Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash is smart, he will start Ohtani on the mound, too, and let him throw a couple of innings. Give the fans at home a chance to see this superstar in action.
The Angels are using Ohtani more than they have in his previous three years. Prior to this year, Ohtani did not hit in the game before and the game after after he pitched.
That limited him to only about four games at bat a week. This year, he not only is in the lineup most of the time when he isn’t pitching, he’s in the lineup (and batting second) when he is pitching, even though that puts the Angels offense at a disadvantage once the Angels go to the bullpen.
With star outfielder Mike Trout out of the lineup for almost two months because of a calf injury, Ohtani has had the spotlight all to himself in Anaheim this year. His star is shining brightly at the moment and Major League Baseball needs to take advantage of that by making him the focus of All Star Week activities.
Talent like his only comes around once every 100 years or so.
LOCAL ICON: While on the subject of the All Star Game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who will coach the National League has chosen one of the South L.A. area’s best all-time players to serve as an honorary coach for the team.
Reggie Smith, who was part of the Dodgers lineup in the late 70s when they lost back-to-back World Series to the New York Yankees, will be on the National League bench.
Smith is no stranger to All Star Games. During his 17-year career he played in seven All Star games.
Smith grew up in the Los Angeles area and graduated from Centennial High School in Compton. In the 1960s, South Los Angeles produced lots of Major League talent including Smith, Willie Crawford, Bob Watson and Bobby Tolan to name just a few.
He, Dusty Baker and Rick Monday roamed the outfield during those two World Series years and he was one of four Dodgers who hit 30 or more home runs in 1977, the first time that was ever accomplished.
He was fourth in voting for the most valuable player in the National League in both 1977 and 78.
After retiring from baseball, Smith served as the Dodgers’ hitting coach from 1994-99. He now runs a baseball academy in Encino, where he teaches young players the finer points of the game, especially hitting.
It will be nice to see Smith in uniform again.
NOT WHAT THEY WANTED: Saying the NBA Finals between the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks is not exactly what the NBA brass was hoping for would be the understatement of the week.
Among large markets in the country, Phoenix is ranked 11th by Nielsen and Milwaukee is 35th.
Chris Paul and Giannis Antetokounmpo (almost spelled it right the first time) provide star power, but the NBA was hoping for the Lakers and the Nets had would have settled for a healthy Clippers against almost anyone from the east.
Instead they have two franchises that have combined for one NBA title in their respective histories.
That doesn’t mean it won’t be a good series to watch, especially if Antetokounmpo is healthy and he looked healthy in the series opener July 6 when he scored 20 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in the Bucks’ loss to the Suns, 118-105.
The Suns had the higher-powered offense in the opener with Paul running things, scoring 32 points and passing off for 9 assists.
Devon Booker, who shined through most of the playoffs but was slowed down after breaking his nose against the Clippers, scored 27 points, although he missed 13 of 21 shots.
Deandre Ayton, who is finally living up to his No. 1 overall draft status from the 2018 draft, added 22 points and 19 rebounds as the Suns turned an eight-point halftime lead into a 14-point lead after three quarters and coasted home.
Phoenix looks like the best team and should win the series in six games. But injuries have played a major role in the playoffs this year and could do so again.
A Phoenix victory in the series would give Paul his first NBA championship after being regarded as one of the best point guards never to have won a title up to now.
Unlike some superstars, Paul makes the players around him better (anyone hear of Blake Griffin or Deandre Jordan lately?).
Antetokounmpo is one of the most gifted players in the NBA and will finally have the spotlight of a championship series to display his skills. The Bucks haven’t had a player of his talent since they sent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers in a trade in 1975.
He will need a stellar series if the Bucks have a chance of winning the title.