By Rory Carroll
ANAHEIM, Calif. (Reuters) – Shohei Ohtani is turning Angels Stadium in Anaheim into a favored destination for Japanese tourists and expats looking to see their beloved countryman in action as he shines in his first season in the Major Leagues.
Japanese baseball fans came out in droves on a pleasant evening on Thursday to see the Los Angeles Angels slugger, who is also a starting pitcher, play the Boston Red Sox to an 8-2 loss.
“The Angels are going to make more money from the tourists, in the summertime especially,” Taro Endo, who moved to Southern California 30 years ago, told Reuters before the game.
“It’s nice weather and close to the homeland,” said Endo, who was accompanied by two friends visiting from Japan.
The towering 23-year-old Ohtani was a highly-sought after free agent in the off-season and came roaring out of the gates of his rookie campaign, hitting home runs in three consecutive games while dominating in two of his three starts on the mound.
Inside the stadium, Ohtani jerseys are flying off the racks and a newly released four-armed Ohtani bobblehead, which depicts him both batting and pitching, was expected to be a top seller as well, sales staff said.
Endo said Ohtani is part of a long tradition of Japanese players including Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki who have succeeded in the U.S. despite obstacles.
“I respect everyone because they don’t speak good English but still they wanted to play in the United States,” he said.
“I feel so great because I’m one of them. I came to the United States looking for something here.”
Twenty-five-year-old Masaaki Nishida of Tokyo came directly from the airport to the stadium for the game on his first-ever trip to the U.S. with a homemade Ohtani sign in hand.
“Japanese super player,” said a beaming Nishida, who plans to catch three games at the “Big A” before heading back to Japan. “Let’s go Ohtani.”
UCLA students Chisei Mizuno and Yukina Takamura said the buzz around Ohtani was powerful enough to convince them to purchase tickets to their first-ever baseball game even though they admitted to knowing little about the sport.
“Because Ohtani’s here we decided to come out and watch the man play,” said the 22-year-old Mizuno, who has lived in the U.S. for about 10 years.
Twenty-year-old Takamura, an exchange student from Japan studying Asian-American studies, nodded in agreement.
“In Japan all the newscasters always talk about all these Japanese players doing well in the U.S., which is why I think there’s a hype,” Mizuno said.
Yoshiyuki Muraishi, who moved from Japan to Southern California almost 17 years ago, sported a crisp new Angels cap and said his allegiance to Ohtani led him to support the Angels despite his previous devotion to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I have always been a Dodgers fan but this year because of Ohtani, I am hoping the team itself does well,” said Muraishi, who lives in nearby Torrance, which is home to the second largest number of Japanese-Americans in the U.S.
Torrance is the North American headquarters for Japanese auto company Honda and until last year was also the site of Toyota’s North American headquarters.
He said Ohtani’s success is helping to shrink the gap between Japanese living in the U.S. and those back home.
“It’s one extra reason to reconnect with many of the friends back in Japan and the family members,” he said.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll, editing by Ed Osmond)