The star-studded Dodgers are already baseball’s greatest show

The star-studded Dodgers are already baseball’s greatest show

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Late Thursday morning, as interpreter Ippei Mizuhara chatted with Los Angeles Dodgers executives just outside the team’s clubhouse, a young woman charged toward the fence that separates fans from the mounds where Dodgers pitchers throw their spring training bullpen sessions.

The stroller she was pushing was slowing her down, so she pulled her child from its confines and abandoned it all together. It remained there, a few yards behind her, as she found a spot against the fence, a forgotten casualty of the quest to let her toddler lay eyes on baseball’s biggest celebrity. Shohei Ohtani was walking toward the group, there, in plain view, with a bat in his hands. Decorum be damned. History was in sight. She had to get the picture. And she was not alone.

The early days of Dodgers spring training have been defined by a celebrity-inspired freneticism, the kind that follows American presidents or famous actors, if not Taylor Swift. When Ohtani stood next to 24-year-old starter Emmet Sheehan with a bat in his hands, two dozen cameramen hurried to the fences, hoping for a shot.

When he stood in the box against Sheehan — his first look at live pitching since the elbow surgery that will keep him from pitching this year — fans who had been watching former MVPs Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts quickly abandoned those mortals for a glimpse at the legend. Only starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s emergence a few minutes later could pry a few fans away.

No team has seen anything quite like this, particularly so early in spring training, because no team has ever accumulated star power quite like this. The Dodgers, already the sport’s most star-studded team even before Ohtani and Yamamoto arrived this offseason, are now the greatest show on baseball earth, a billion-dollar machine that sold out tickets to its season-openers in South Korea within an hour.

They will likely draw even more than the league-leading 3.8 million fans that came to Dodger Stadium last regular season, an average of more than 47,000 a night. Advertisers from the U.S. and Japan will clamor for space on Dodger Stadium walls where millions will see them every night. Baseball’s richest team will, by all accounts, get richer.

Therein lies the uncomfortable part of what the Dodgers are doing, at least for other owners and franchises around the sport. No other team can spend like the Dodgers can, can have an offseason in which a nine-figure extension for Tyler Glasnow or a one-year, $23 million deal for outfielder Teoscar Hernández amount to afterthoughts. The American League East champion Baltimore Orioles, for reference, do not have a single player on their roster making more than $15 million.

“We always watch trends in the market. I think a concern for baseball, has always been, since I started in 1988, disparity in revenue and on the payroll side,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Having said that, last year, we were talking about a different team eating up players, or two. And unless my recollection is bad, neither one of them were at that event we hold in late October or early November, right?”

“It’s the time of year to fret about disparity,” Manfred said. “My real non-answer is, we’ll see how it goes.”

Manfred is right. The 2023 New York Mets were supposed to be the team that was too wealthy to fail. They missed the playoffs. And according to Roster Resource, the Mets will actually enter the 2024 season with a higher payroll than the Dodgers if current rosters hold.

And while Mets owner Steve Cohen can testify that spending does not guarantee titles, the Dodgers are operating in a different financial stratosphere than most of their competition, and the gap is only widening. They are beneficiaries of the sports’ most lucrative cable deal, one that pays them a total of $8.35 billion and an average of $320 million annually as most other MLB teams grapple with plummeting rights fees.

Instead of selling space on their jersey sleeves to some company that might pay tens of millions for the opportunity, the Dodgers opted to give that space to the Guggenheim Partners, the global investment firm that owns the team. Seemingly, the opportunity to advertise on Ohtani’s shoulder was worth more to Dodgers ownership than the millions they might have brought in by selling that space to an outside party.

In some ways, the Dodgers’ success is good for everyone. Revenue from television deals with international broadcast partners — like the more than half-dozen deals MLB makes to air games in Japan, for example — is funneled into the league’s central revenue pool and distributed across all teams. Fans clamoring to see Ohtani will buy tickets in other cities to catch a glimpse, boosting sales for other teams, too. This is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime show.

“We got probably the guy we’re going to be talking about, our great-grandchildren are going to be talking about, just like we talk about Babe Ruth, we’re going to be talking about Shohei,” Freeman said, offering an unintentional reminder that dominance is nothing new in a sport that, as Manfred said, has always grappled with the idea that some teams just have more money to spend than others. Ruth’s Yankees dominated decades, just like the free-spending Yankees of the late-1990s stirred talk of the need to cap salaries and even the playing field.

For much of the last decade, the Ohtani-free Dodgers were that villain, accumulating stars seemingly at will. Just last year, Cohen’s Mets were the villain, the team too rich to fail — until, of course, they did, and were forced to take a minor step back in spending to rebuild their foundation. Perhaps the Dodgers, like they have been for years, are just the latest in that long line of wealthy franchises that small-market teams say ruin their chances. Then again, if the early days of spring training are any indication, it’s possible baseball has never seen anything quite like them before.

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