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IF OHTANI TRASHED HIS LOCKER, WHO CAN BLAME HIM AS A NEW LIFE AWAITS?
His future will be elsewhere, likely Los Angeles in a short while, and if he cleaned out his quarters in frustrated upheaval, who can blame him after the three greatest baseball seasons we’ve seen?
It came from the loose lips of Rob Manfred, the industry’s commissioner, that finds him “wildly optimistic about baseball’s upside.” If so, why are we watching the NFL’s early weeks in record numbers and swallowing every Deion Sanders quip like a human lovetron? Normally, sports are followed closely until the playoffs arrive, when we watch even closer.
Manfred? Other than Mookie Betts, a few Atlanta regals and a lot of fine gents from Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Houston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Seattle, Texas, Arizona, Miami or maybe the Chicago Cubs — wait, are they choking too? — there’s nothing in October aligning his thought that baseball “is the greatest game in the world.” The craziest item I’ve read all week? Shohei Ohtani’s agent repped Ryan Braun, when he was in big trouble with steroids, in a defense strategy. CAA’s Nez Balelo didn’t want to talk about it, and I think we know why.
He’s about to give the game a reason for discussion when it most matters: He will direct Ohtani, when the World Series is over in November, to a place where he illuminates the diamonds and make us gaze again. When the apparatus is swinging his bat and pitching a ball, he has given us the three greatest seasons we’ve ever seen. He has cracked the skull of horsehide by slashing .277/.379/.585 with 124 home runs, 290 RBIs and 57 stolen bases in 447 games, while, as a hurler, he has authored 34 wins and a 2.84 ERA in 428 2/3 innings while striking out 542 batters. Last March, he awakened us by mastering the World Baseball Classic and striking out his usual teammate, Mike Trout, while giving the tournament to Japan. We wanted to see it every fall, with the Angels, with someone in the big leagues. This was the two-way overlording not seen since Babe Ruth, more than 100 years ago. Who wouldn’t watch?
None of us has watched. In what might be the rudest treatment received by a non-native in American sports, Ohtani will not make the postseason for the sixth straight season. He has yet to taste a winning campaign in Anaheim, which oddly caught his glimpse when he came to the U.S. late in 2017. He could have gone anywhere but chose the neighborhood of Mickey Mouse. Does he regret it? I think he does, based on a trashing of his locker that left one packed All-Star Game duffel bag — from Seattle, this year, for Mariners fans who pack the faint hope — in front of the space. Heretofore, he has been short of drama in his career, but if this was Ohtani’s way of saying goodbye to Orange County, it made ideal sense. He tried. He put together years only in fantasies. When he realized he had irritation in his right oblique to go with an right elbow tear, screw the closet.
Now he’s gone, probably northwest up the I-5 to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who would become bigger than Deion and Joe (0-2 at $275 million) Burrow and Justin (0-2 at $262.5 million) Herbert and anyone else. Put Ohtani in the everyday lineup with Betts and Freddie Freeman, insert him in the starting rotation after his torn ulnar collateral ligament is ready in 2025, and watch the Dodgers command global attention. Because he and his agent want to prompt value, he’ll listen to both New York clubs, Boston, San Francisco, maybe those Cubs. But it makes little sense going East when he needs to be close to his homeland, and already, the next general manager trying to elude a pink slip seems to be saying sayonara.
“Shohei — he's one of a kind,” Perry Minasian said. “Great player, great person. I think anybody that knows him, has a chance to talk to him, be around him — he's a team guy. He's a pretty special guy, he's a pretty special player, and it's been a pleasure to get to know him these last three years and hopefully he's here for a long time.”
A few hours, perhaps. True to the word, Ohtani became the target of fans who realized a trip to the 15-day injured list meant he was gone. They crowded by the dugout Saturday and tried to take one last glimpse at him, until ushers cleaned out the throngs so the game with Detroit could resume. “I think in his mind he thought there was a possibility for a (medical) procedure today, and that's why he packed up. Nothing malicious,” Minasian said of the dizzy locker scene. “There's no story here. He's so focused on, ‘Season's over, I gotta get ready for '24,' and that was what his mindset was. He's planning on being here the last homestand. A great player that can do things on a baseball field that nobody else can do. As good of a player as he is, the thing I appreciate the most is the preparation part of it. The want-to, the care. This is somebody that puts everything he has into it.”
Who could blame him for taking a scent, on the anonymity downside, to Dodger Stadium during the postseason? As it is, he has locked up Most Valuable Player honors in the American League for the second time in three years, stopped last season only by Aaron Judge’s record-breaking 62 homers. Why not see what the afterworld is like? The Dodgers probably won’t go far, despite their 10th National League West pennant in 11 years, because their rotation has been hindered by serious issues and the career twilight of Clayton Kershaw. Ohtani will taste the sensation of not being mass-mandated, as he has been six years. The Dodgers haven’t won enough World Series, but no one doubts the financial flexibility of ownership and management’s wisdom. It’s another world, Chavez Ravine to the crumbles of Angel Stadium. Ohtani didn’t know enough in 2017. He does now.
Sometime soon, he’ll have to chat publicly about his future, whatever that is. For now, his teammates realize what’s happening. “I asked him, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And he told me the same that we all now know,” closer Carlos Estévez said. “I said, ‘I really respect what you do. This is really amazing to see a guy do this. Don’t change. Be the same guy.’ ’’
“It’s definitely weird to see all his stuff gone,” pitcher Patrick Sandoval said. “Yeah, just, yeah, I miss him.”
He has been called a fictional being from outer space. His injuries tell us he’s human, and deep down, Shohei Ohtani knows he must start winning at 30 instead of falling short. His numbers will continue to pass $500 million, even as a one-year designated hitter. He knows what that figure means.
“Those feelings get stronger year by year. It sucks to lose,” he said through his interpreter. “He wants to win, so it gets stronger every year.”
To win, he heads 31 miles in the car. Already, the path is easy.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.