The Ohtani Effect: Dodgers embrace ‘learning curve’ in dealing with extra attention

PHOENIX — Shohei Ohtani, at his core, wants to be like everyone else.

“I’m on a brand new team,” he said Friday morning, adorned in a shade of blue that will take some getting used to until he actually suits up for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “So I’m going to act like a rookie and try to get along with all the guys.”

His approach includes introducing himself, even though the $700 million attached to his name and the 50 or so Japanese media members following him around daily could render that pursuit a tad redundant. Most “rookies” don’t draw this big of a crowd. Ohtani slipped in and out of a packed scrum, separated by a rope as the horde of journalists — some had been there since 7 a.m. — fought for breathing room to get the shot of the most well-known man in the sport.

This is the swarm’s sole focus at a Dodgers camp that already feels much different than any in recent memory. Not that the Dodgers seem to mind.

This is the new reality. The Dodgers were always going to draw attention, especially after spending as aggressively as they did this past winter. This offseason, of course, was different. Ohtani is different, in Japan and in the greater consciousness, a celebrity who transcends his sport in multiple countries but particularly back home. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, another high-priced acquisition, is a subject of intrigue after landing the richest contract for a pitcher in history before even throwing a major-league pitch.

When Ohtani arrives at the Dodgers spring training facility each morning, his movements are tracked by the sound of dozens of cameras snapping photos. When he began his warmup routine within sight of reporters Saturday, videographers jogged over to get as much footage as they could before Ohtani slipped into the organization’s new indoor batting cage. And every opportunity to pose a few questions to Ohtani, the two-way star who now has officially spoken three times since picking the Dodgers this winter (and putting into motion the most extravagant offseason yet) is noteworthy.

So when Ohtani remarked about his offseason workouts at Dodger Stadium alongside Gavin Lux and Walker Buehler, those pitchers became the media’s next target. Lux and Buehler were asked as many questions about their notable new teammates as they were about their own rehabs from major surgeries. It happened again when Buehler played long toss and threw his bullpen alongside Yamamoto.

It’s not a new development: Ohtani only spoke to the media every so often during his six seasons with the Angels. Maybe after pitching outings and the occasional offensive outburst but rarely after a loss. His Angels teammates came to understand that when Ohtani didn’t speak to reporters, they were going to field questions instead. It became part of the routine.

That dynamic, of course, is going to be part of the Dodgers’ acclimation process this spring.

“I mean, you see what’s going on right here,” Clayton Kershaw said this week, gesturing toward the crowd of cameras that swarmed him, a gathering bigger than even typical postseason standards. The franchise icon’s return of course included some questions on his new teammates.

When Ohtani talks will matter little to most fans, as The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal made sure to note. But while the Dodgers have certainly generated attention in the past, no spring — and no player — has drawn anything quite like this.

“When you put this uniform on, there’s a certain standard in how you go about things,” Dave Roberts said. “(That includes) appreciating the fact that there’s more responsibility, more autographs to sign, more media probably to contend with.

“It’s going to be a learning curve for everyone. But I think that part of my messaging to the players is going to be, it comes with the territory. I think that the expectations of winning, the expectations of answering questions when you don’t feel like it, it’s part of the job.”

Can it be a distraction?

“If you let it,” Roberts said. He conceded there could be tensions if the load becomes too cumbersome.

The manager recounted his experience with media demand. He played for the San Francisco Giants in 2007-08 and he considered himself one of multiple honorary spokespeople when he was teammates with Barry Bonds as the Giants star was hurtling toward the all-time home run record. Roberts on Saturday volunteered Jason Heyward to be this club’s version of that, with Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman among the others who could shoulder an extra question or two once they report to camp early next week.

So, the assembled media took him up on it, huddling around Heyward’s locker for 10 minutes to get his thoughts on the madness. Heyward was a good sport about it, but clarified, “Shohei is the guy to talk about Shohei.”

It’s a simple statement because it’s the status quo (though Ohtani is a different case) from an established veteran. Heyward is a respected presence in the clubhouse and was retained this winter partly because of his ability to permeate different groups and serve as a club spokesperson. He understands speaking to the media is part of his routine.

The attention, he said, is noted. But it won’t be much more than that.

“It’s harder if you guys make it harder,” Heyward said. “But, if anything, it’s what you deal with every season as it is. I understand you guys will probably try to check in with me on the daily. But you know me by now, if I have something I gotta get to do and focus on, then I’ll do that. But when I can, I understand you guys have a job to do as well.”

Consider this part of Ohtani and Yamamoto’s introduction. The Dodgers have so far embraced the circus as pitchers and catchers have reported.

“It kind of becomes a little bit more like a football Sunday every day,” Buehler said. “I think it’s great for us as a team, great for a lot of the guys on our team that are going to get more attention for what they do and for our team as well. … I think it’s good for the game to be covered in this way. We’re fortunate to have it here.”

(Photo of Shohei Ohtani: Kyodo via Associated Press) 

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