Shohei Ohtani Tries to Blend in with Dodgers, Even If That Might Prove Impossible

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shohei Ohtani, with interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, right, listens to a question as he speaks to media at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, on the first day of spring training baseball workouts for the Dodgers.

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Shohei Ohtani walked through his new spring training clubhouse wearing a simple white T-shirt with one word “BOSS” across the front in big, dark capital letters.

The two-time Most Valuable Player might not be in charge of these Los Angeles Dodgers, but there’s little doubt who commands the most attention.

The 29-year-old Ohtani gave his first interview at Camelback Ranch as a member of the Dodgers on a chilly Friday morning, surrounded by more than 50 reporters who asked questions of baseball’s first and only $700 million man.

It’s these kind of scenes that make it hard for Ohtani to be just one of the guys.

But he’s trying.

“I’m on a brand new team, so I’m going to act like a rookie,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “Try to get along with all the guys and teammates.”

The Dodgers had their first official workout of spring training on Friday, with pitchers and catchers reporting. Several hitters were also taking batting practice, though stars like Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman haven’t yet arrived at camp. The Dodgers are the first of the 30 teams to start spring training ahead of their opener against San Diego on March 20 at Seoul, South Korea.

Ohtani’s two-way superstardom is on hold for the 2024 season while he recovers from elbow surgery that will keep him off the mound. But he’ll still be able to hit — and he does that quite well. The three-time All-Star hit .304 with 44 homers last season despite missing most of the final month of the season.

Now that he doesn’t have to worry about pitching, those numbers could take another jump.

“I feel like there’s not just one level, but several levels ahead offensive-wise,” Ohtani said. “It just depends on what kind of lineup I’m in.”

All signs point to the Dodgers having a stellar offensive lineup. Los Angeles could start a lineup that includes fellow All-Stars like Betts, Freeman, Max Muncy and Will Smith. Ohtani said he’s ready to contribute.

“My swing — effort level-wise — is almost 100%,” Ohtani said. “My next step is facing live arms, some velocity.”

Ohtani’s first year of his 10-year contract is one of the many storylines for the big-spending Dodgers, who allocated more than $1 billion to free agents. The Ohtani deal was even richer than many expected and then days later, Los Angeles landed right-handed pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto with a $325 million, 12-year deal.

Manager Dave Roberts said he’s talked to Ohtani a few times already in Arizona, but is trying to give him space as he adapts to new surroundings.

“Everything he does is intentional, which is pretty amazing, but not surprising,” Roberts said. “I think right now, you see a lot of teammates trying to watch how he operates, learn what makes him tick, but it takes time.

“But I’ve still got to pinch myself to see him in a Dodger uniform.”

Roberts said the Dodgers are embracing the organization’s new role as the sport’s version of Taylor Swift. The manager harkened back to his days as a player with the San Francisco Giants in 2007, when teammate Barry Bonds was chasing the all-time career home run record, and the media was a constant presence in the clubhouse.

“It’s hard to ignore who he is as a ballplayer, the contract,” Roberts said. “But he wants nothing more than to win, and to win as a Dodger. That’s why he chose to come here. I can speak for everyone in the organization — we could’t be more excited.”

Also on Friday, the Dodgers announced their one-year deal with left-hander Clayton Kershaw, who returns for his 17th season. The deal includes a player option for 2025.

The three-time Cy Young winner had surgery Nov. 3 to repair his left shoulder capsule and glenohumeral ligaments, which reinforce the joint capsule. He expects to be available to pitch this summer. If he decides to return in 2025, he could join Ohtani in the starting rotation.

To make room for Kershaw on the roster, right-hander Tony Gonsolin was placed on the 60-day injured list while recovering from Tommy John surgery.