Never Say Aloud The Name Of Shohei Ohtani Or Surely You Will Perish!
12:19 PM EST on December 6, 2023
Free-agent international superstar Shohei Ohtani is meeting with teams. That much is certain, as it would be difficult and strange for him to choose his next employer without having any conversations. Few teams will score meetings with Ohtani. The list, according to multiple reports, already has been narrowed down to a small handful of clubs. While Ohtani remains a free agent, it would make sense for any franchise to pull any lever that might increase its chance of gaining the services of the sport's best player: bust all piggy banks, call in all favors, make any promises, barter with King Paimon, summon any or all Great Old Ones. Players of Ohtani's caliber become available to teams basically never; depending upon the length of his next contract, this might be the only time it happens, like, in human history.
One thing that potential suitors must not do, at all costs, is acknowledge publicly that they have had any contact with Ohtani or his representation. Jeff Passan reported for ESPN in November that "it will be held against" any team whose visits with Ohtani are reported publicly. This restriction was communicated by Ohtani's agent, Nez Balelo, who works for the powerful Creative Artists Agency. Balelo and Ohtani apparently care a whole lot about maintaining absolute control over the flow of information in their business dealings, and enforced a similarly strict embargo on information during Ohtani's move stateside in 2017. The Athletic reported in a profile of Balelo that he was so effective at maintaining the mystery of Ohtani's process during his move from Japan that Angels general manager Billy Eppler fell out of his chair in shock when he learned that his team had won the sweepstakes; Eppler didn't even have time to share the news with the staff around the office before Balelo publicly broke the news via a targeted media rollout.
It's a funny restriction. Ohtani is the most famous active baseball player in the world, and his free agency is more or less all that anyone in baseball cares about; a great many other important baseball moves will remain on hold until after Ohtani picks his next team. It will not be possible for this process to be entirely secretive; teams will not need to do leaks in order for the information to get out there. Nevertheless, this is something that the handful of most serious suitors should and will take seriously. They have to. Sometimes these efforts will appear deeply silly. "Everything that we’re doing to make the team better, to the extent that we will keep private, we will do," said a flustered Ross Atkins, who is general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays are the surprise dark horse on Ohtani's short list, and Atkins is determined not to flub his courtship by confirming it: "Meetings that occur, don’t occur, I’m not going to get into the specifics of."
The Cubs, another team to reportedly make the short list, are stuck in a confusing no-man's land. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that the Cubs were losing optimism; hours later Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported that the Cubs have not been told definitively whether they are in or out of the running, which is an important thing to clarify when possession of any information at all would confirm contact with Ohtani and/or Balelo—and thus violate the embargo. Cubs president Jed Hoyer told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday that he is staying mum one way or another. "The truth is that with this free-agent pursuit and others, very few people are aware of what’s being discussed or what’s going on—on purpose," Hoyer said. "I think that all sides have kept it that way. And I think it’s going to stay that way."
It's possible someone forgot to share the memo with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. The Dodgers have long been considered favorites in this and all other free-agent pursuits. They are a marquee team, one of the very richest in the sport, they've made the playoffs for 11 straight seasons, and they play in a gorgeous baseball temple. For Ohtani, choosing the Dodgers would mean moving all his stuff and his home base just a few miles, from Anaheim to Los Angeles. The Dodgers were for sure going to have a meeting with Ohtani, and in fact did. Roberts was asked about this Tuesday. After pausing for a beat, possibly to hear an indistinct echo of a half-remembered warning and then to disregard it, Roberts went ahead and said it all.
The question was a clever one: "Are you able to say if you met with Shohei?" Answering this without getting into trouble would've taken some minor contortion. Yes, I am able to say—a "no" here would confirm an imposed condition, which by extension would imply contact with Ohtani's camp—but I'm not going to, nor will I discuss any contact we may or may not have had with any specific free agents. Obviously this would've been ridiculous and embarrassing, but that's almost the point. All the theater of evasion shows not just the lengths that your team will go to to compete for this player but also how seriously you will safeguard information once Ohtani is wearing your jersey. It's a stupid and demeaning trial but also a very easy one. Simply do not say anything.
Roberts made one feeble attempt to be evasive and then almost immediately gave up. "Am I able to say that? Um, it's a good possibility, I think that, um, um—yeah, we met with him. I don't want to—I'd like to be honest. And so, uh, we met with Shohei, we talked, and, uh, I think it went well." Naturally the assembled media pounced on this ill-advised frankness. The next question asked where the meeting between the Dodgers and Ohtani took place. Roberts: "We met in Los Angeles, at Dodger Stadium." When? "A couple of days ago." And what was the team's pitch? Here Roberts just unpacked the substance of the discussion between Dodgers brass and Ohtani. This session with reporters went on for an unfathomable 20 minutes; it is remarkable that at no point in here did a Dodgers PR person fire a tranq dart into Roberts's neck.
This did not go over great with Roberts's bosses. According to Nightengale, Roberts immediately received a "stern text message" and then huddled with Dodgers PR officials, who forbade him from being as candid going forward. General manager Brandon Gomes was sent out later that day to speak for the Dodgers and to offer the stone-faced non-confirmation that is supposed to be the organization's official position until such time as Ohtani has chosen a suitor. Gomes acknowledged that Roberts "made a comment" but refused to discuss the matter, declining even to say if Roberts's bean-spilling might have hurt the team's chances. Dodgers president Andrew Friedman similarly declined to confirm that his team had met with Ohtani, despite that information already having been explicitly publicly confirmed by a person who was in the room.
By now this is all deeply stupid but, if Ohtani is worth a $600 million commitment, then it stands to reason he is also worth almost any temporary professional humiliation. The executives whose teams miss out on Ohtani this winter will have whatever is left of their careers and lives to ponder the teensy missteps or miscalculations that cost them their shot. Things will be somewhat simpler for the Dodgers: If they miss out on Ohtani, they'll at least have an obvious fall guy.