Shohei Ohtani, a One-Man Global Spectacle, Introduced as a Dodger

REUTERS/Aude Guerrucci
Baseball – Shohei Ohtani Press Conference – Centerfield Plaza, Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, California, United States – December 14, 2023 Shohei Ohtani during the press conference

The spectacle began long before it actually began, as it always seems to do with Shohei Ohtani, the man who ended years of speculation about his future when he announced last week he was signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. On Thursday, nearly 90 minutes before it was time for his formal introduction as a Dodger, a line of reporters stretched out from the gates to Dodger Stadium. When Ohtani took the stage alongside Dodgers owners and executives, he saw so many faces he thought the team’s media relations staff had changed the rules.

“I was told it was only media today, so I wasn’t expecting this many people,” Ohtani said through his interpreter.

“It actually is only media,” said Joe Davis, the Dodgers broadcaster and emcee for the day.

Such is the phenomenon Ohtani has created, one that even the best player in the world – whose every move is watched on multiple continents, who has a crowd of reporters assigned just to him, whose dog’s name the globe clamored to know for weeks – has not yet seen. The Dodgers are one of sports’ premier franchises, and it is not cruel to their neighbors, the Anaheim-based Angels, to say that the attention they command in one of the country’s biggest cities is beyond what Ohtani experienced in his previous six years.

That attention – and the money that comes with it – is why the Dodgers were willing to commit $700 million to a man who will not have full use of his pitching powers for the first season of his 10-year deal. The sports apparel company Fanatics announced Wednesday that Ohtani’s No. 17 Dodgers jersey sold more than any other jersey in the first 48 hours of its release, more than those of global soccer megastars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Ohtani, as always, is something else entirely.

“One of our goals is to have baseball fans in Japan convert to Dodger blue,” Dodgers President Andrew Friedman said. “And to have Shohei, along with the rest of his teammates, help grow the game and passion for Dodger baseball all across Japan.”

While he admitted he was surprised by the size of the media horde Thursday, Ohtani did not look intimidated. Sure, he looked a little awkward in his navy blue suit than he does in a baseball jersey, though few people have ever looked quite as home in a baseball jersey as he does. He turned and smiled for pictures, uncertain at times whether to leave the Dodgers hat on or take it off. Then he removed it and stepped to the microphone for his first public comments since August. As ever, this time clad in blue, interpreter and friend Ippei Mizuhara was by his side.

“I can’t wait to join the Dodgers. They share the same passion as me. They have a vision and history all about winning,” Ohtani said through Mizuhara. “They share the same values as me.”

To the extent that Ohtani made anything clear during the years, months and weeks leading up to his free agency, it was that winning was a priority – more than money (though he got plenty of that anyway), more than anything. In his opening remarks, Friedman acknowledged that one reason Ohtani is such a fit at Dodger Stadium is because the Dodgers win so often.

“I’m not sure how long I’m going to be able to play the game. I do prioritize winning. That is at the top of my list, and that will probably never change,” he said through Mizuhara.

Almost as if they still felt compelled to prove their intentions to Ohtani, shortly after their news conference, reports surfaced that the Dodgers had completed a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays for right-handed starter Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Manuel Margot. The deal is contingent on Los Angeles signing Glasnow, coming off a 10-7 season that included 162 strikeouts in 120 innings, to a contract extension.

The Dodgers always seemed like the most natural landing spot for Ohtani, though it wasn’t until Thursday evening that he spoke about those priorities himself. He didn’t exactly open up, explaining that he was grateful to every team for pursuing him, making sure to say the decision was difficult, declaring that there were many reasons he chose the Dodgers. He said he decided last Friday night where he would sign, hours before he announced the decision on Instagram.

“One thing that really stands out in my head was when I had a meeting with the Dodgers, their ownership group, they said when they looked back at the last 10 years, even though they have made the playoffs every year, one World Series ring – they consider that a failure,” Ohtani said. “When I heard that, I knew they were all about winning. And that’s exactly how I feel.”

He explained that winning, as his representatives made sure to mention to reporters across the country all week, is the reason Ohtani decided to defer $698 million of the $700 million he will ultimately earn on this deal by 2043. If he could clear room for better players, he explained, then he would do it. None of that was new information. Ohtani, relentlessly careful with his words, does not ever offer much of that.

But because he is Ohtani and because nothing about him is like anything that has come before, the tidbit he did toss to the eager masses was downright unforgettable: Asked, after weeks of speculation, for the name of the dog that sat on his lap when he was announced as the American League MVP – the dog whose name people around the industry speculated was being kept private because it might hint at Ohtani’s free agent destination – Ohtani explained that his dog had a Japanese name that he wasn’t sure Americans would be able to pronounce. So he shortened it, gave the dog a nickname the crowds of American reporters could handle – or perhaps, if you allow a little conspiracy theorizing, one that showed how capable he is of handling them. The dog’s name, Mizuhara revealed as Ohtani grinned beside him, is Decoy.