How Shohei Ohtani is connecting with his Dodgers teammates

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Saturday, April 13, 2024

LOS ANGELES -- Shohei Ohtani struck out March 28 against St. Louis Cardinals reliever Riley O'Brienandtook a seat alone on the bench in the Los Angeles Dodgers' dugout. Moments later, Max Muncy, standing near the top step waiting to take his place in the on-deck circle, called over to him. It was the seventh inning of the Dodgers' home opener, and Muncy wanted to get a better sense of O'Brien, a 29-year-old journeyman right-hander. In that moment, Ohtani got what he probably needed most:

An opening. A chance to connect organically with new teammates. A reminder, perhaps, that nothing breaks down walls like the universal language of sports.

Ohtani walked Muncy through his at-bat, without the benefit of a translator, using hand gestures and a steadily improving grasp of English to explain the break on O'Brien's slider and the depth of his curveball. Soon he was holding court for Teoscar Hernández and James Outman, too, a scene that has become familiar in the season's first two-plus weeks.

Said Outman: "We speak the same language of baseball."

Ohtani is both the biggest baseball star in the world and the sport's greatest mystery. The enormity of his profile has almost necessitated a life of secrecy, one that has often distanced him from even his own teammates. Few, if any, can relate to his level of fame. The language barrier doesn't help. The reality of his role this season, a designated hitter still in the early stages of his recovery as a pitcher, has put him on what Dodgers manager Dave Roberts described as "an island," often alone in his work. And the betting scandal that surrounds Ohtani -- triggering the firing of his former interpreter and confidant, Ippei Mizuhara, who has since been charged with bank fraud -- seems to have separated him further.

One of the best ways to bridge that gap, the Dodgers have learned, is through the conversations that sprout within baseball games, many of them dugout scouting reports between at-bats. In those settings, Ohtani has been as much a provider as he has been a recipient.

"He understands baseball," Muncy said. "There's guys that I've never faced that he's faced, guys that I've faced that he's never faced, just being in two different leagues the last several years. And you've seen it with everybody. He's trying to interact. He's trying to just see what the pitch feels like, what the action feels like. And I give credit to him because he's trying not to use a translator. He's trying to just interact. There might be a language barrier but this is baseball, so it's just easier for him to communicate."

The Dodgers have mostly cruised through the early part of this season, winning 10 of 16 games and losing only one of five series. The top half of their lineup has been predictably devastating, with cleanup hitter Will Smith showing he might be just as big a force as Ohtani, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, who bat in front of him. The dominance of Tyler Glasnow, the acclimation of Yoshinobu Yamamoto and the promise of Bobby Miller have provided hints of brilliance for the rotation.

The Dodgers are far from perfect -- key players are still struggling, the infield defense looks shoddy, and an effective lefty reliever might be needed -- but their rise to the top of the National League West has felt inevitable since Opening Day. Their biggest initial challenge, then, has been navigating the attention that surrounds Ohtani and integrating him into the group.

"The best thing we can all do is treat him like a regular baseball player, like everyone else in the clubhouse," Roberts said. "Someone that's so unique and so talented, I think people tend to get tentative and shy away. But in the clubhouse, you can't do that."

The dynamic of interacting with Ohtani changed dramatically March 21, when the Dodgers fired Mizuhara in the wake of media inquiries surrounding at least $4.5 million in wire transfers sent from Ohtani's bank account to a Southern California bookmaking operation under federal investigation. Ohtani emphatically denied involvement while delivering a prolonged statement March 25. Seventeen days later, on Thursday, federal authorities presented reams of phone records and bank statements showing, according to an affidavit, that Mizuhara took more than $16 million from an account owned by Ohtani to pay gambling debts without the two-way superstar's knowledge.

The betting scandal had thrust Ohtani into the center of controversy at a time when he was adapting to a new team and facing the pressure of a $700 million contract. The person he would lean on most to navigate through something like that was gone, ironically enough because he allegedly put him through it in the first place. Roberts, though, believed not having Mizuhara around would actually make things easier. In the manager's mind, it would streamline communication and force Ohtani outside his comfort zone.

"We're seeing more of that," Roberts said last week. "I think there's more conversations, and I think that, in the long term, the long haul, over the course of the season, it's going to be very beneficial."

Ohtani is riding a 16-for-35 stretch that includes 12 extra-base hits, four of them homers. He is putting a slow start behind him and making it seem as if he were unaffected by the drama. While addressing the media Monday in Minneapolis, Ohtani, speaking through new interpreter Will Ireton, said: "Regardless of whatever happens off the field, my ability to continue to play baseball hasn't changed. It's my job to make sure that I play to the best of my abilities."

Members of Ohtani's former team, the Los Angeles Angels, frequently lauded his ability to eliminate distractions and center his focus, a key to his ability to juggle hitting and pitching simultaneously. Dodgers teammates have seen that manifest itself in a whole new way.

"Only he knows what's inside and what he's feeling, but he's not showing it -- and that means a lot," Hernández said. "I think that's being a professional. I know you're dealing with something big off the field, but he's still coming in here, focused, getting the job done and doing it for the team."

Ohtani and Hernández, a corner outfielder signed to a one-year contract after a short stint with the Seattle Mariners, quickly became friends upon joining the Dodgers. Ohtani has often been described as uncommonly soft-spoken and respectful for a star of his caliber, but he also has a playful side. Hernández has been one of a few Dodgers to tap into it so far.

Replacing Mizuhara with Ireton, a longtime team employee who maintains other responsibilities and is nowhere near as involved in Ohtani's life, has helped carve a path for others to connect with Ohtani, several members of the Dodgers have said. Teammates have seemed more willing to approach Ohtani on a whim, simply because there isn't somebody constantly by his side. They've noticed Ohtani begin to open up more -- at his locker, in hitters' meetings and, perhaps most notably, during games.

Outman has often found himself talking with Ohtani about opposing pitchers because he sees the ball similarly as a fellow left-handed hitter. Asked what he has noticed about Ohtani through those interactions, Outman said: "That sometimes the game seems too easy for him."

"He's a ballplayer just like any of us. But he's just extremely talented."

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