Hernández: Dodgers handle first Ohtani mania test, but more challenges loom for the team

Walking up a stairway on the backside of the outfield pavilion, Shohei Ohtani was accompanied by his interpreter, a couple of Dodgers public relations officials, two police officers and seven security guards.

The sight of Ohtani caused a commotion in the nearby concourse, screams erupting from the mass of humanity pressed against a chain of metal security barriers. Admirers in blue hooded sweatshirts and white replica jerseys pointed their camera phones in Ohtani’s direction, chanting in unison, “Sho-hei! Sho-hei!”

DodgerFest wasn’t a typical preseason rally. This was a Hollywood red-carpet event. This was a Beyoncé concert.

The $700-million home run hitter was expected to change the Dodger Stadium experience, and he managed to do that on Saturday without stepping in the batter’s box or scaling the pitcher’s mound.

The Dodgers already had baseball superstars in the likes of Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, but now they had a superstar-superstar, and the atmosphere was unlike anything the team had previously experienced.

As baseball’s first star to transcend his sport in the social media era, Ohtani attracted visitors to DodgerFest who were well-versed in modern celebrity-gawking practices. This was amplified by the press corps, which has transformed as much by the decline of traditional media as the influx of Japanese reporters. The Dodgers approved credentials for 180 journalists, including writers for fan sites and self-proclaimed “reporters,” who showed up to work in the team’s hats and jerseys.

Players addressed the media in the home bullpen, and many of their entrances were recorded by small mobs of camera-phone-carrying journalists. Betts and starting pitcher Walker Buehler had a wall of recording devices pointed at them when they exchanged embraces, from both reporters on the ground and spectators in the stands.

“Look at the excitement around,” Freeman said. “I think that’s all because Shohei’s here.”

Freeman’s theory was proven when Ohtani climbed onto a makeshift stage in center field on which he was interviewed by Jose Mota, the bilingual broadcaster who worked for the Angels when Ohtani broke into the major leagues with them. Ohtani was welcomed by a raucous ovation.

With an estimated 30,000 fans in attendance, Mota asked Ohtani what it was like to see so much blue.

“It’s the complete opposite of red, so I feel like I’m finally here,” Ohtani replied in Japanese.

Ohtani’s longtime interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, repeated a variation of his answer in English and the crowd roared with approval.

Ohtani later made the crowd break into laughter with his response to a question about his relationship with Mizuhara, with whom he is close.

“It’s a business-only relationship,” Ohtani joked. “We’re not friends. We hang out for practical reasons.”

Nationally famous in Japan since he was in high school, the 29-year-old Ohtani knew how to work a crowd, as evidenced by one particular exchange which started with Mota asking him whether he preferred pizzas or hamburgers.

“Hamburgers,” Ohtani said.

What kind?

“In-N-Out,” Ohtani said with a smile, eliciting another round of cheers from the audience.

Ohtani was entirely unfazed by the visual and audio cues that he wasn’t in smaller-market Anaheim anymore. Asked how he felt about the newfound levels of hysteria he has inspired since his move to the Dodgers, Ohtani said, “I’d like to concentrate on producing results on the field to live up to the expectations of the fans.”

For virtually any other player, the response would have qualified as a non-answer. In the case of Ohtani, it offered insight into how he’s dealt with fame during the past decade and a half. No one ignores outside noise as well as Ohtani, whom former Angels manager Phil Nevin described as the mentally strongest player he’s ever been around. This characteristic has permitted Ohtani to thrive in pressure-packed situations, including the World Baseball Classic Japan won last year.

The approach of manager Dave Roberts has been to embrace the noise, as he’s figured it’s too loud to ignore. Why bother denying that anything other than a World Series will be a failure when everyone thinks so?

“What about the Dodgers of 2024?” Roberts asked the crowd, which screamed its approval.

In reference to the team’s $300-million-plus roster, Roberts shouted while flashing his trademark smile, “Are you kidding me?”

If Roberts was the team’s unofficial hype man, Freeman was the spokesperson, holding a second media scrum for reporters who couldn’t get close enough to hear what he was saying in his first. Freeman’s consideration was noticed by Japanese journalists assigned to chronicle Ohtani for the upcoming season, as they wondered if Freeman could be a source for quotes on days Ohtani doesn’t speak. (When Ohtani played for the Angels, he spoke only after games he pitched. The Dodgers haven’t said how often they will make him available this year.)

Roberts and Freeman played their roles on Saturday with pleasure, but that was only one day. How will they deal with day after day after day of this? What about the less-extroverted players on the team?

As Ohtani said, delivering on-field results will take care of everything. The Dodgers can’t let their talent advantage over other teams be diminished by external forces. The leadership of Roberts, as well as veteran players such as Freeman, will be vital. So will Ohtani’s performance.

“I think my responsibilities are heavier [than before], but it doesn’t change what I do,” Ohtani said. “Until now, I think I’ve done my best regardless of the amount of money, and I’d like to promise that won’t change.”

The two-way player won’t pitch this season as he recovers from his second Tommy John surgery but said that’s had a minimal effect on his hitting program. Ohtani said he’s hitting off tees, as well as soft toss, and plans to start hitting off machines when he reports to spring training in Arizona.

“Right now, I feel like I’m more or less swinging at 100%,” he said.

Ohtani said he will take his now-famous dog, Dekopin, to spring training but that he doesn’t expect him to travel with him in the regular season.

The Dodgers open their season with a two-game series in South Korea against the San Diego Padres that starts on March 20.

“As of right now, I think I’ll be ready in time,” Ohtani said. “For now, I’ve progressed according to schedule. I haven’t sped up, and I haven’t slowed down. If it proceeds smoothly like this, I’ll make it.”

When the Dodgers signed Ohtani, they knew this season had a chance to be like none other before it. Now, they have to know it will for sure be like none other before it. Ohtani sounds ready to take on the madness, but what about everyone else?

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