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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Angels adjust to life after Ohtani: ‘Like being kicked out of the band’

Los Angeles Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon during warmups before the start of the Opening Day game against the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., on April 7, 2022. Rendon and the rest of the Angels are adjusting to life without two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, who is now with the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I’ve never been around somebody that big,” Rendon said. “It was weird, right?” (Michael Owens/The New York Times)

By Sam Blum and Brittany Ghiroli / The Athletic

Every morning for the past six years, no matter how early Los Angeles Angels players and staff members got to Tempe Diablo Stadium, they saw a throng of Japanese photojournalists standing on Tempe Butte, which overlooks the team’s spring training complex in Arizona. This was not a sunrise hike. Every camera was zoomed in, waiting for the arrival of two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani.

While spring training means early mornings for players, coaches and reporters, those assigned exclusively to Ohtani made everyone else think twice about complaining about their alarms. Ohtani Watch started at 5 a.m., when most of the Cactus League was still asleep. There were no weekends off and no wiggle room: Everyone was after that one shot, every day, for the entire six weeks of camp.

“Good luck beating them here,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said of a group that routinely included 50 reporters.

“They said they had to,” the Angels’ bench coach, Ray Montgomery, said. “I asked why, and they said in case Ohtani showed up early.”

The attention never calmed down. When Ohtani arrived in Tempe in 2018 as a 23-year-old Japanese star, no one was sure how his talents as a pitcher and hitter would translate. Now, after three All-Star selections, two American League MVP awards, two Silver Slugger awards and a Rookie of the Year Award, there is no doubt he is a generational talent.

Ohtani’s star power is now 26 miles down the road, at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ camp in Glendale, Arizona. The Dodgers signed him to a 10-year, $700 million contract in the offseason.

So what is life like in Angels camp now that the Ohtani circus has left town?

“Someone said the last few years maybe this was what being in the Beatles was like,” Rendon said. “You don’t get used to it, but you kind of expect it. Now it’s like being kicked out of the band.”

The biggest change, other than no one watching team members get in and out of their cars, has been inside the clubhouse, the players’ space. When Ohtani was there, the large contingent of reporters made some Angels players feel like guests in their own house.

“It’s nice to be able to have our space back a little more,” outfielder Taylor Ward said.

Losing a player like Ohtani does not make any team better. But it has allowed the players to breathe a little more easily.

“Sometimes players got intimidated by a lot of media,” said Carlos Estévez, the Angels’ veteran closer. “Some younger guys. They were like, ‘I’m going to stay out of the way.’”

Pitcher Patrick Sandoval was one of Ohtani’s closest friends, but even he acknowledged it was a “weird dynamic” to have the Japanese reporters ask him one question about himself, then 10 others about Ohtani. If cameras caught you so much as nodding at the two-way superstar, the reporters would ask you to talk about it.

The Angels’ public relations staff, often inundated with requests, would try to rotate which players they asked to speak about Ohtani, who usually limited his media availability to after his mound starts. The team’s communications manager, Grace McNamee, who speaks Japanese, would make notes on Ohtani’s schedule and coordinate photo opportunities.

Now, with Ohtani gone, “I’ve never seen Grace so relaxed,” Montgomery said.

One year ago, there was hardly enough room to walk in the alley-like corridor within the Angels’ spring training locker room. Now, catcher Matt Thaiss and Chad Wallach have enough space to throw a football back and forth as part of a makeshift fielding drill.

Gone are Ohtani signs and stadium paraphernalia from the stadium and around Tempe. But fear not if you’re one of the thousands of fans who made Ohtani’s jersey the top seller in MLB last year: It’s still in active Angels circulation.

Ohtani’s number — the famed red-and-white No. 17 — now belongs to a nonroster invitee, Hunter Dozier, who has a career minus-2.6 WAR, or wins above replacement. Dozier wore No. 17 for nearly all of his seven-year career with the Kansas City Royals and signed a minor league deal with the Angels in January. He started to wonder in the weeks before spring training started: Would the Angels give it away so soon?

He got his answer on the first day of camp. Dozier, 32, a utility man, emphasized that the No. 17 did not have any special significance for him; it was just what the Royals gave him when he was starting his career. Dozier has been reassigned to minor league camp, meaning he will not make the Angels’ opening day roster.

Pitcher Reid Detmers was surprised when he arrived at camp expecting to be in his normal locker — only to find that he got Ohtani’s old space to the left of the clubhouse door.

“It was kind of sad,” Detmers said. “But at the same time, it was kind of cool. Obviously, it’s a great locker, and Shohei was unbelievable. Awesome dude. Easy to talk to. Talk to him about anything. It’s special to have his old locker.”

Without Ohtani, multiple players feared the steady stream of Japanese cuisine would slow to a trickle, making, “Are we still going to have sushi?” a common write-in question. The answer was yes. Ohtani was not the biggest daily sushi consumer on the team; that title most likely belongs to Mike Trout or Logan O’Hoppe.

Trout is the only current Angels player who can remember life without Ohtani, and the fact that Ohtani’s arrival in 2018 did not actually result in more sushi. During the season, Ohtani often brought in his own food.

Still, Ohtani’s absence will be felt in the food room. A few times last year, he brought in Japanese wagyu beef for the kitchen to cook for the team. Multiple Angels lamented the loss.

Potential iron deficiencies aside, everything is a little quieter for the Angels post-Ohtani. Parking is ample. Tickets are easy to get. The autograph lines for players entering and leaving the stadium are minuscule in comparison to previous years.

“I’ve never been around somebody that big,” Rendon said. “I don’t think baseball has seen anybody that big. It was weird, right? At hotels and places, there would be a lot of people trying to find him.”

Now the eyes following Ohtani’s every move are in Dodgers camp. Only a short drive, but a world away.

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