Shohei Ohtani can hit, pitch -- and keep his teammates laughing

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Kole Calhoun had just homered, another routine blast on another routine afternoon. He jogged around the bases, crossed home plate and returned to the dugout stoically, expecting the habitual high-fives and tempered excitement. What he heard, from the surprisingly gregarious Shohei Ohtani, disarmed him.

What a pop!

Calhoun burst into laughter. Not long before that, during Ohtani's rookie season in 2018, a member of the Los Angeles Angels was in the midst of a prolonged at-bat, and Ohtani wanted to offer some encouragement. "Keep fight!" he hollered, and several teammates giggled. For the rest of that season, "keep fight" evolved into something of a rallying cry when hitters worked deep counts.

Ohtani, 25, is no more than 21 months removed from a life in Japan, with limited proficiency for any language outside of his native tongue. But he has already endeared himself to his major league teammates, all of whom either communicate in English or Spanish. They marvel at Ohtani's rare skills -- the power, the blazing speed, the pitchability -- but laugh about his outgoing personality and comedic timing. Some find him hilarious.

"Every day," Angels reliever Cam Bedrosian said, "it seems like he learns a new word."

Many of them are Spanish cuss words that Ohtani will summon during quiet moments. Spanish came easier to him than English, largely because a high number of Latin players help make up rosters in the Japanese Pacific League, where Ohtani played before coming to the U.S. But Ohtani has shown a noticeable interest in becoming a fluent English speaker. Teammates swear he knows more than he lets on.

"I call him out a lot, actually, because I know he understands it," Angels reliever Noe Ramirez said. "I know he can speak it."

Ohtani quickly proved that he possessed the ability to anchor a starting rotation, posting a 3.31 ERA and striking out 63 batters in 51⅔ innings before his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm gave out last summer. On the road, while players filed into the bus that would take them to the ballpark, Mike Trout chanted "Sho time!" on the days Ohtani pitched. Before his debut, on the first day of April in 2018, Trout asked Ohtani how to say "Happy Easter" in Japanese. "Happy Easter," Ohtani replied, grinning. His teammates howled.

In recent weeks, as his recovery from Tommy John surgery progressed, Ohtani has developed a stock answer when Angels manager Brad Ausmus asks about his bullpen sessions. He provides a thumb's up with an intentionally cheesy smile and says, "Grrreat."

"It's a subtle humor," Ausmus said, "but he's really funny."

Blake Parker, now a reliever with the Philadelphia Phillies, built a kinship with Ohtani during the early days of spring training last year, before camp officially began. Ohtani noticed Parker playing the popular video game Clash Royale on his smartphone and told him he played constantly. Ohtani was the leader of a clan with friends from Japan, but he joined one on the Angels, merged the two together and used the game to help bond with teammates who otherwise didn't share much commonality.

"He's got everybody playing that game," Calhoun said. "Everybody."

Ohtani has established himself as a Clash Royale legend in the Angels' clubhouse. He is, by consensus, the best on the team, some would say by a lot. Sometimes he'll beat his opponents while multitasking in the food room. Other times he'll make indecipherable noises while dominating the competition, best described by Bedrosian as a high-pitched beep beep beep beep beep.

"He's good at everything," Ramirez said. "It sucks, man. You envy him sometimes, like, 'Damn.' He's like Superman."

In 2018, Ohtani coupled a successful 10-start stint with a .285/.361/.564 slash line and was named American League Rookie of the Year. Prior to deciding on season-ending knee surgery, he batted .286/.343/.505 while serving exclusively as a designated hitter in 2019. The Angels hope Ohtani will get off the mound again in late November, finish his throwing progression the following month and be ready to resume a two-way role at the start of 2020.

Martin Maldonado, the Houston Astros catcher who was behind the plate for 80 percent of Ohtani's starts in 2018, said he has "no doubt in my mind" that Ohtani will become an elite pitcher next season. In the meantime, Angels infielder Tommy La Stella has found himself mesmerized by Ohtani's raw power, pointing to how he routinely hit balls into a bar well beyond the center-field fence at Target Field during a series in May.

"His B.P. is unlike anything I've seen," La Stella said. "I don't even know a superlative to throw at it."

Through his triumphs, Ohtani has occasionally displayed raw emotion, the type Japanese writers who chronicle him never saw in the Far East. Like when he slammed his bat after drawing a late, game-tying walk against the Oakland Athletics on June 5. Or when he flexed his biceps after homering off Yusei Kikuchi on June 8. Or when he unleashed a primal yell after recording his 12th strikeout against the A's on April 8, 2018.

Within the clubhouse, players have gradually seen more of his personality spill out. Like when he sang "Despacito" on the bus during rookie hazing. Or when he changed his walk-up music to the "Game of Thrones" theme song after being urged to watch the popular HBO series. Or when he made T-shirts of his translator, Ippei Mizuhara, posing in Antelope Canyon, and secretly distributed them throughout the Angels' clubhouse.

"It seems like he's starting to blossom more this year," Calhoun said. "He's getting a little more comfortable."

Maldonado made it a priority to establish a rapport with Ohtani from the onset. To break the ice, he called him "Jose," which Ohtani began to consider an adopted name. Maldonado found Ohtani to be mischievous. Maldonado constantly watched Ohtani pretend he didn't understand what a teammate was saying, then laugh after forcing him to repeat himself. Often times Maldonado would lose something from his locker -- a sock, a wristband, a cap -- and after a while he'd catch Ohtani laughing maliciously.

"You always hear his funny laugh, just all over the place," Ramirez said. "Everybody has a joke with him, and he remembers it."