FOX Sports Insider
It has been a monumental week in the baseball world, starting with Shohei Ohtani’s free agency, continuing with his record-breaking contract and ending with a decision to join the Los Angeles Dodgers. However closely many of us followed it, it seems the interest in Japan exceeded ours.
The level of obsession with Ohtani knows no bounds and cannot be defined in typical terms. It is hard to draw comparisons where none can suffice. Japan loves pro sports’ first $700 million man (eventually) with a kind of all-encompassing adulation and adoration that few American athletes have experienced.
As Ohtani and his agent Nez Balelo maintained radio silence, there simply wasn’t much for the baseball experts to talk about and for fans to peruse over. That led to the breezy buildup in which a social-media post changed everything. One that had previously led to conspiracy theories, internet sleuthing, flight tracking and even apologies from baseball reporters who swing big at the hugest potential scoop of modern times and hit nothing but thin air, Ohtani-mania just reached a whole new level in Japan.
Several publications raced to print with emergency editions, designed rapidly to hit the streets as soon as possible while attempting to serve a commemorative purpose on a historic day for a unique player.
The national Yomiuri Shimbun paper opted for blanket coverage. The Iwate Nippo in Ohtani’s home region could not contain its excitement and major television channels broke into regular scheduling to deliver and then reflect on the news.
The day before the decision, Natsuko Aoike of Tokyo Sports initially told me there was nothing in American society or sports that could compare to the level of hype and incessant interest there is in all things related to the 29-year-old pitching and slugging superstar who no one seems to have a bad word to say about.
“The hype in Japan for Ohtani … is like the presidential election over here,” Aoike, based in Southern California and covering Ohtani daily, texted later.
For a brief window of time last week, before the Ohtani saga came to a head, then drifted into the surreal realms of Shark Tank, and ultimately ended with resolution in rapid time, it seemed like the story might broaden into a non-exclusive saga.
What does Shohei Ohtani’s signing mean for the Los Angeles Dodgers?
At the same time that story had developed, the narrative surrounding pitching ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto also became part of the discussion, leading to guessing and second-guessing becoming a sport of its own across the Pacific.
Yamamoto is going to sign a mega-deal that would be a headline-grabbing blockbuster at any other time. I mean, the projected $300 million for a first MLB contract is a whopper and the Japanese public has nothing but warm feelings for the World Baseball Classic-starring set to arrive from the Orix Buffaloes.
[MLB free-agent rumors tracker: Yamamoto meeting with Giants, Yankees]
Forget about this being a two-pronged story, though. Ohtani takes up all the air in the room. Anything else is a footnote, even with the New York duo of the Yankees and Mets in the hunt, along with the San Francisco Giants, and — just imagine — a possibility he joins Ohtani and the Dodgers.
For all that, on the Japanese interest scale, Yamamoto’s impending deal can’t even be described as a dessert compared to Ohtani’s main course. More like the mint you snagged on the way out of the restaurant.
That’s not a knock on the new guy, it’s just the way it is.
“It’s Shohei, all the time,” Aoike added. “He is always the biggest news, even when there is not really any news. There is never enough that you could write. People want to hear more, all the time. For what people want, there is nothing else, and no one else, that comes close.”
Ben Verlander’s message to Los Angeles Dodger fans, Shohei Ohtani (大谷翔平)
What now? Oh, just four months of anticipation to be punctuated with some mini-milestones, his first sighting in Dodger colors, presumably an official unveiling, spring training and then his first MLB game in the famous blue. The Dodgers already give tours of their stadium hosted by a Japanese-speaking guide. They’re about to get busy, in the kind of way that Shibuya Crossing gets busy.
The atmosphere will be uncharted when the season begins, of course, like nothing baseball has experienced for a long, long, time.
But in Japan, the breathlessness has already begun, because this isn’t a temporary flurry of fervor there. Every day is an Ohtani day, a reality for now, and at least for 10 more years.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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