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Athletics Angels Baseball

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani is 2-0 to start the season.

A highlight of any sportswriter's career is witnessing the debut of a true "phenom" and watching them sustain all the hoopla.

Three quickly come to mind.

• I remember, like it was yesterday, lefty Fernando Valenzuela's rise from obscurity to super stardom with the Dodgers in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

He won his first eight starts, five by shutout, and was the first and only player to earn the Cy Young and rookie of the year awards the same season.

Valenzuela's unusual and flamboyant pitching motion included a glance skyward at the apex of each wind-up as if he were chatting with God.

He played 17 seasons, mostly with the Dodgers.

• In 1984, the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan third overall behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. MJ, still considered the greatest player ever, led Chicago to six NBA titles and was a five-time league MVP.

• In 1985, the Bears made 6-foot-2, 350-pound William "The Refrigerator" Perry a first-round pick and fans instantly fell in love with the jovial, gap-toothed defensive lineman.

During an era when there were few 300-pounders in the NFL, Coach Mike Ditka occasionally used "The Fridge" as a fullback at the goal line, where he barreled over defenders like a street-sweeper and had three career rushing touchdowns, including one in Super Bowl XX against the Patriots.

Perry's Super Bowl ring was a size 25 — twice what most adult males normally wear.

There have been precious few "phenoms" until now, maybe.

Los Angeles Angels' rookie pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani, 23, appears to be the real deal.

To date, he is 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 13 innings. He's hitting .389 (7/18) with three home runs — two of which traveled nearly 450 feet — seven RBIs and a 1,310 OPS.

Ohtani’s performance is even more impressive considering he endured a very difficult spring training, struggling both on the mound (27.0 ERA) and with the bat (.125).

But after studying film and making key adjustments, he is emerging as the "Godzilla" of baseball.

Two of the Region's best baseball minds believe we're looking at a true phenom with a future bright enough to light up Soldier Field at night.

Munster's Hal Morris won a World Series title with the Reds in 1990, retired in 2000 as a career .304 hitter, and spent six seasons as the Angels' scouting director, searching for amateur and professional talent in Korea, Japan, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Crown Point's Dan Plesac pitched in the Majors for 18 seasons and is now an MLB analyst.

"He's no fluke," Morris said. "He's pushing 100 miles per hour and he's working on the edges of the plate and down in the strike zone. His fastball has great movement and he's in the 80s with his splitter and has got a really good slider, too.

"That's formidable."

Arguably the most transcendent player to ever arrive from Japan, Ohtani also has tape-measure power. Near the end of spring training, he wisely eliminated the big leg kick he had in Japan in favor of a short little toe-tap stance.

"Time will tell at the plate," Morris said. "He'll be challenged. But I don't see him struggling on the mound."

Morris turned down a contract extension with the Angels this season, but remains close to the game by working for a San Francisco-based startup that prepares players financially for their futures. He lives with wife, Alyssa, and their two daughters in Winnetka, Illinois.

At 8-3, the Angels were off to their best start since 1987 heading into Tuesday night's game at Texas.

Plesac has followed Ohtani's remarkable start and continues to be amazed, though he had doubts early on in spring training.

"I thought, to myself, man, this is another guy where the hype is too much," Plesac told ESPN radio. "But I looked at all the video and I can't remember seeing a pitcher coming over from Japan that has the body, the stuff, the mechanics, and is not afraid to use the fastball.

"Whatever he did since the Cactus League, he's flipped the switch. He looks like Babe Ruth hitting from the left side. I've been told by many whose opinions I value that he's legit from both ends."

For fans wanting a closer look at Shohei Ohtani, the Angels play the White Sox in Chicago on Sept. 7-9.

We'll know by then: phenom or flash in the pan.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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