The unprecedented power of Shohei Ohtani

The unprecedented power of Shohei Ohtani

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

SEOUL — A few hours before the Los Angeles Dodgers took the field at Gocheok Sky Dome in South Korea, first baseman Freddie Freeman was crouched in front of the team’s dugout, doing fielding drills.

No cameramen elbowed for a shot. No reporters jostled to get a view. Freeman — a former MVP, one of the best players of his era and a probable future Hall of Famer — was easily accessible, right there in plain sight, chatting with coaches and whoever got near. But mostly, everyone left him alone.

Instead, cameramen and photographers started to assemble a few yards away, near the end of the Dodgers’ dugout. It would be an hour or so before more players were expected to jog out for batting practice, and Shohei Ohtani, MLB’s towering sensation, rarely takes batting practice on the field, so there was no guarantee he would emerge for pregame warmups at all. But earlier that day, a bombshell scandal involving his longtime interpreter and allegations of gambling and theft sent the sports world reeling. So they waited anyway.

Given the chance to film a future Hall of Famer honing his craft or the chance to get even a second of footage of Ohtani, everyone chose the latter. When Mookie Betts, another former MVP, emerged and saw the camera-wielding crowd, he smiled. He knew they were not interested in him, another potential Hall of Famer, a player some would argue is the face of the sport other than … well, you know.

Even the brightest stars of this baseball generation are afterthoughts when Shohei Ohtani is around.

Ohtani is unprecedented, on the field and off. The 29-year-old is the first player to pitch and hit in the majors regularly since Babe Ruth, but he does both at a time when skill levels are so high and training is so effective that it feels almost like an insult to call him Ruthian.

Since he came to MLB from Japan ahead of the 2018 season after a groundbreaking career in his home country’s Nippon Professional Baseball, he has dispelled all notions that he could not pitch and hit in the majors, too. When healthy, he is an elite starting pitcher and slugger, a candidate to lead the league in strikeouts when he pitches and homers when he hits — a player so good, and so extraordinary, that MLB created a new rule for him.

Ohtani has only been healthy enough to pitch and hit through a full MLB season twice. His 2023 campaign, in which he earned his second American League MVP award, ended early when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and required surgery. It was his second elbow procedure, following the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2018. When Ohtani hit free agency this offseason, he did so with every suitor knowing he is not expected to pitch in 2024 and will return with a twice-repaired elbow ligament, and all the uncertainty that would come with it. They bid anyway.

The Dodgers still made Ohtani the highest-paid player in the history of North American professional sports, committing the equivalent of $700 million in a massive, uniquely structured deal that relies heavily on deferred money. And when they did, they opened a new chapter of possibilities for Ohtani and the sport.

Until this year, Ohtani had spent his entire MLB career with the Los Angeles Angels, a franchise that has long played second fiddle to the Dodgers, their glamorous Southern California neighbors. The Angels never made the postseason during Ohtani’s tenure, which means that though he was baseball’s biggest name, he never had the chance to shine on its grandest stage.

The Dodgers did not commit to Ohtani solely because of the unprecedented value he can provide on the field. Chief executive Stan Kasten said that when the Dodgers normally consider giving a player a massive deal, they think of it in terms of how he will improve the team. The more he improves the team, the better the team will perform. The better the team performs, the greater the revenue.

But with Ohtani, Kasten said, the Dodgers also considered something bigger: off-field impact. Adding Ohtani to the most star-studded roster in the sport, one that draws Hollywood crowds, in a beloved ballpark for an iconic franchise felt to them as though it would create off-field value of an entirely different scale.

“We thought the combination of the Dodger brand, which is already prominent and prominent in the Far East, combining that with Shohei’s profile, would be greater than the sum of its parts,” said Kasten, who spoke by phone during spring training, before news of the scandal broke. “That judgment has proven to be accurate.”

Media jostled to get a shot of Shohei Ohtani at the Los Angeles Dodgers game in Seoul on March 20, one day before the scandal involving his interpreter broke. (Video: The Washington Post)

Shortly after 1 a.m. in Tokyo earlier this month, Ohtani posted a picture to his Instagram story. He was getting ready to board a flight to Seoul, standing alongside a woman who appeared to be his partner. Two weeks before that, Ohtani stunned fans by announcing he was married, and while Japanese internet sleuths had doggedly (and, as it turned out, accurately) pursued the identity of his wife, Ohtani had yet to confirm that information publicly.

So the picture of Ohtani and former Japanese basketball player Mamiko Tanaka jolted Japan to frenzied late-night life. Channel after channel spent time breaking down the news, using slow-motion zoom-ins on the picture alongside analysts analyzing — well, Ohtani — and graphics made just for the occasion.

By the morning commute, the picture was on the front pages of half a dozen sports tabloids already packed into racks at convenience stores across Tokyo. “Man posts picture with wife” does not normally qualify as a headline. But here, Ohtani is like the weather: Everything he does, big or small, is relevant, always. Everything he does, routine or unprecedented, becomes a daily part of cultural life in Japan.

Japan has had revered baseball stars before. Ichiro Suzuki was, and remains, a legend. Masahiro Tanaka, playing out his last capable years in NPB, has been a hero. Yu Darvish is considered Japanese baseball’s treasured, sage uncle. But Ohtani has always been different, combining unprecedented baseball talent with unarguable good looks and a squeaky clean image that, until last week, was almost so pristine that it left no room for questions about whether it might be too good to be true.

Ohtani is everywhere in Japan, every swing documented on television, every endearing facial expression slowed down on the evening news. His face hovers over the famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, projected there in an ad for Dip, an internet job agency that reported a rise in share prices after Ohtani became a brand ambassador last year. Ohtani cutouts stand alongside mattresses in Tokyo department stores. Black-and-white posed pictures of Ohtani wearing Seiko watches serve as full-page ads on the backs of magazines. According to Sportico, Ohtani will make roughly $65 million in endorsements in 2024, nine times the next-closest MLB player.

People walk past an advertisement with a picture of Shohei Ohtani in Tokyo on March 16. (Video: The Washington Post)

In Omotesando, Tokyo’s glitzy version of Fifth Avenue, banners featuring Ohtani, looking pensive in a black turtleneck against a purple backdrop, hang on street poles as shoppers walk by. The ads, for cosmetic company Kosé, surround a pop-up shop devoted entirely to Ohtani. A few blocks up and around a corner, the New Balance store features a three-story video board featuring Ohtani smiling, tossing a ball and twirling a bat as passersby stopped to take selfies with a digital version of one of the country’s biggest stars.

If the whole thing feels Swiftian, it is, though the analogy isn’t perfect. But the parallels are there: When Ohtani announced his marriage in February, some fans posted TikToks of themselves weeping at the loss of their dream spouse, while many others simply posted videos in which they claimed to be his new wife — in jest and in earnest. News channels devoted hours of coverage. One spent 178 minutes on Ohtani’s marriage announcement — which, remember, did not include any information about his bride — according to Yahoo Japan.

In the aftermath of that news cycle, a new term emerged in Japanese online jargon, one that translated roughly to “Ohtani harassment.” It referred to the feeling of being unable to escape the omnipresent superstar. But there is no escaping Ohtani now.

Kasten has been a professional sports executive for decades. He ran an NBA team and an NHL team and more than one MLB team on his way to becoming CEO of the Dodgers in 2012. He knows what makes money in sports and what doesn’t. And Shohei Ohtani makes money.

“There are very, very, very few players who move the needle economically all on their own, just because of their specific celebrity,” Kasten said. “[Michael] Jordan was one, and there weren’t a lot of others. There just aren’t. But Shohei is one of those players.”

The Dodgers accounted for that when they made their record-breaking investment in Ohtani, hoping — as head of baseball operations Andrew Friedman put it at Ohtani’s introductory news conference — to “have baseball fans in Japan convert to Dodger blue.” At the time, they had not yet signed right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who had spent his career in Japan but was available to MLB teams this offseason. Ohtani was the draw.

Fanatics, the company that produces MLB jerseys for players and fans, reported that more Ohtani jerseys sold in the 48 hours after his signing than any other player in the company’s history. Ohtani more than doubled the previous record, set by soccer star Lionel Messi’s move to Inter Miami. And in those 48 hours, Fanatics said it sold more Ohtani jerseys in Japan than all MLB team jerseys combined over the past two years.

The Dodgers will be highly visible on Japanese television screens, too. MLB has never struggled to find footing with Japanese audiences. Last year’s World Baseball Classic, headlined by Ohtani, included four games that registered a household rating in the range of 42.5 to 48.7, according to league data, numbers that represent a percentage of households with TVs that watched the games.

MLB has broadcast agreements with nine Japanese media partners. Those deals allowed fans there to watch Ohtani’s every on-field move with his former team, the Angels, according to an MLB spokesman, who said the league’s ratings on Japanese broadcast behemoth NHK were the highest they had ever been last year, even when Ohtani missed the final month of the season. Anyone wanting to watch Ohtani play in Japan will be able to do so again this year, and that will not be new.

But revenue from all international broadcast agreements funnels into MLB’s central revenue pool, meaning the Dodgers will not corner the Japanese television market. The same is true of MLB merchandise sold abroad: All revenue goes into the central fund. The Dodgers, beneficiaries of MLB’s biggest broadcast deal and leaders in attendance even before they signed Ohtani, will therefore not feel his financial impact as much in those areas as one might expect.

“The one area we really looked at,” Kasten said, “was sponsorships.”

When the Dodgers, who open their stateside season against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, returned from Seoul to play their annual exhibitions against the Angels, Dodger Stadium included a few new ads. A Toyo Tires sign was visible behind home plate for every pitch, the product of a deal struck between the Dodgers and the Japan-based company in February. Daiso, a Japanese household goods company, cycled an ad behind home plate as Ohtani took his first home at-bat at the ballpark.

Kasten said the Dodgers will have new signs around the stadium and new promotions. And given that there is a limited amount of space and time for such things at Dodger Stadium and in a baseball season, the presence of new sponsors would suggest companies are now bidding more for that space than the franchise saw in the past.

“I’m just going to say yes,” Kasten said when asked if it was fair to assume that the price of ad space at Dodger Stadium might be climbing. Then he laughed, as if to suggest he had employed more than a touch of understatement.

Increased attention, increased scrutiny

Traffic was backed up at Chavez Ravine on Monday afternoon, according to those who sat in it. The Dodgers’ exhibition game against the Angels did not start for six hours. The cars did not belong to fans. They belonged to reporters, dozens of them, arriving early for the most anticipated news conference of a baseball era.

The teams involved in that day’s on-field proceedings happened to be those that have employed Ohtani and his former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, which added to the drama of the day. But many of those reporters probably would have been there even if Ohtani wasn’t breaking days of silence on the betting scandal that resulted in Mizuhara’s firing and Ohtani’s camp levying allegations of theft against the superstar’s longtime friend.

Wherever he plays, whatever he does, Ohtani has always been surrounded by more reporters than the average athlete. A handful of Japanese outlets pay reporters and camera operators just to follow Ohtani, wherever he goes. American reporters flock to him, too, because no other baseball player stirs such widespread interest. For the Dodgers, a crush of reporters like this will soon be known as “Tuesday.” And that is no surprise to them.

When the Dodgers signed Ohtani, they attached themselves to a baseball phenom who kept his private life so private that even Mike Trout, his former teammate, was stunned when Ohtani announced he was married. They agreed to become a de facto home base for a planet’s worth of baseball media, even though they will struggle to find space for everyone in the vintage press box and workrooms at Dodger Stadium — even though they still don’t know where everyone will fit for news conferences in October if Ohtani finally gets his playoff chance, even though they’ve had to limit the number of reporters in their clubhouse because it grew so packed this spring.

Dodgers staffers are still not sure if the attention will ebb and flow, if mid-August afternoons will be as frenetic as these late March evenings, though they seem to assume they will be. Handling this, the attention and the logistics and the added security that Ohtani requires, is something they agreed to when they signed him. MLB has made a less explicit agreement in recent years, investing time and money and resources into building up and protecting the most lucrative star baseball has ever seen, believing the once-in-a-lifetime attention that comes with him will lead to unprecedented interest in the sport. That seemed like a safe assumption. Until last week, the only thing mortal about Ohtani was his right elbow.

But Monday, when the traffic cleared and those reporters squished into a news conference room that was too small to hold them, they did so because Ohtani was suddenly enveloped in questions about whether he, through longtime friend Mizuhara, might have some involvement with illegal sports betting.

Shohei Ohtani said March 25 that he’s “very saddened and shocked” about interpreter Ippei Mizuhara’s alleged theft in his first remarks on the accusations. (Video: AP)

For the first time in his career, the eyes that follow Ohtani, the Dodgers and the league that made him its poster child were staring for less flattering reasons. For the first time, the need for “crisis PR” around Ohtani didn’t mean having too many reporters for too few seats in the press box.

Ohtani vehemently denied betting on baseball and was thorough in outlining a timeline for the alleged theft that suggested he had no idea Mizuhara was stealing from him until the rest of the world did. But that story, and any others that might emerge, will follow Ohtani and the Dodgers from now on because unprecedented attention means unprecedented scrutiny. The Dodgers knew the risk they were taking when they committed so much to Ohtani. They decided it was worth it.

Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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