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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Shohei Ohtani is home and focused on baseball. Dodgers fans are relieved.

A Dodger Blue vintage convertible Chevrolet after the team’s opening day win over the St. Louis Cardinals, outside Dodger stadium in Los Angeles, March 28, 2024. Fans of the Dodgers, whose stadium is packed with close to 50,000 people for every game, finally got a close look at the team’s most exciting acquisition, Major League Baseball’s megastar Shohei Ohtani. (Sinna Nasseri/The New York Times)

By Tim Arango

The top deck of Dodger Stadium is far from the action but may have the best view in baseball. Straight ahead are the San Gabriel Mountains. During night games, as the sun goes down, the sky glows pink. Down below, the full choreography of the game is on display, offering a panoramic view shunned by the movie stars and moguls who fill the sections behind home plate.

And on Thursday morning, fans heading to those cheap seats passed a new addition to the ballpark: an 8-foot stone lantern given as a gift to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1960s by a famous Japanese sports columnist, Sotaro Suzuki. He helped draw the Dodgers to Japan for a goodwill tour in 1956, two years before the team left Brooklyn for Los Angeles.

For Kimi Ego, a longtime Dodgers fan, the lantern has a special meaning, and she cried when she saw it: Her father was a close friend of Suzuki’s. For years, before her father died in 2000, he took care of the stone lantern, which was then tucked into a hillside beyond the outfield bleachers, and trimmed the plants and shrubs surrounding it.

“Tears of joy,” said Ego, a retired schoolteacher who has been coming to Dodgers games since the 1960s. “My father worked so hard maintaining the garden.”

The monument pays homage to the team’s past and present.

In December, the Dodgers signed the world’s biggest baseball star, two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani, to the richest contract in sports history, $700 million over 10 years. For good measure, the team signed another Japanese superstar, pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, for $325 million over a dozen years — the most lucrative contract ever for a pitcher.

Last Thursday, Ohtani’s impact was apparent before he even stepped on the field: New advertisements for Asian companies — an airline, a retail chain, yogurt drinks, skin care products — dotted the stadium. One local newscaster — in pregame coverage that began when most Angelenos were having breakfast or were stuck in traffic — compared Ohtani to Taylor Swift, saying that the Dodgers were baseball’s version of the Eras Tour. And a new addition to the stadium menu is a Japanese fried octopus fritter being promoted as one of Ohtani’s favorite dishes.

In a sprawling region connected by freeways, where traffic patterns dictate the pace of daily life and where it’s easy to feel disconnected, the Dodgers bring people together. The team regularly tops the major leagues in attendance, with close to 50,000 people packed into the stands each night. On the field, the team has enjoyed more than a decade of regular-season excellence, almost always followed by disappointment in October — with the exception of a World Series title won after the pandemic-shortened season of 2020.

This year, everyone seems to believe, will be different.

“After last season’s letdown, we were bummed about it,” said Manny Palomo, a season-ticket holder who asked his boss three months ago if he could take Thursday off. “And then we got Ohtani, and it just rejuvenated the fan base.”

This being Hollywood, though, a dramatic plot twist was inserted into the Dodgers story: Last week, as the team played two regular-season games against the San Diego Padres in Seoul, South Korea, news reports emerged linking Ohtani and his longtime interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, to a gambling scandal.

The first take suggested that Mizuhara had racked up millions in debt to an illegal bookmaker and that Ohtani had bailed his friend out. But the story quickly shifted, with Mizuhara being accused of stealing from Ohtani’s bank account to pay the bookie.

Before Ohtani had played a game that counted in front of his new fan base, Major League Baseball and the IRS announced investigations into the matter. Then, on Monday afternoon as the team prepared to play a late spring training game, Ohtani finally spoke.

He said he had never bet on sports, much less baseball, and had been betrayed by Mizuhara — who, he said, “has been lying the whole time.”

“To summarize how I’m feeling right now, I’m just beyond shocked,” he said, reading from a prepared statement in front of about 75 journalists, many from Japan, who crowded into an interview room in the bowels of the stadium. “It’s really hard to verbalize how I’m feeling at this point.”

His demeanor was serene, straightforward, emphatic and detailed, even as many questions remained unanswered. That was good enough for his teammates and his manager.

“I heard everything I needed to hear, and I know the players feel the same way,” Dave Roberts, the Dodgers’ manager, said.

For all his global fame, Ohtani, a cartoonishly powerful slugger who is also an all-star pitcher — something the game hasn’t seen since Babe Ruth — is largely a mystery, even though he played six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, the region’s also-ran team. An impression of him, a myth perhaps, as a baseball monk — he was known in Japan as a yakyu shonen, or a baseball boy who eats, sleeps and breathes the sport — has grown over the years, and that reputation followed him to America.

The crowd, a sellout with 52,667 people, roared when Ohtani was introduced before the game by actor Bryan Cranston, walking out past the center field fence onto a blue carpet. (“I felt the walk was a little long, but the ceremony was well done,” Ohtani said after the game.) Everyone was on their feet when he stepped into the box for his first at-bat and smashed a double to right field. And they cheered his aggressiveness when he was tagged out trying to stretch that double to a triple.

For Dodgers fans, the day ended as spectacularly as it had begun: Ohtani added another hit, ending the day 2 for 3 as the Dodgers beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-1.

Eric Karros, a former first baseman who hit more home runs than any Dodger since the team moved to Los Angeles and whose son is a Dodgers minor leaguer, called opening day a “celebration” and a “spiritual beginning” that transcends merely playing a game that finally counts in the standings.

“It’s the beginning,” he said. “You are ready to start. Everything is at zero. It’s fresh. A clean slate.”

For those who love baseball, or play the game, opening day is a time for nostalgia.

“I think it just reminds me of growing up and playing Little League,” said Palomo, the season-ticket holder in the top deck. “I just get to relive that.”

For Miguel Rojas, a veteran utility infielder, it was during the trip to Seoul when he fully absorbed the Dodgers’ global fame. Crowds greeted the team wherever they went, from the airport to the hotel to the ballpark.

“It’s going to feel different throughout the whole year,” he said, “because we’re going to have a lot of cameras, a lot of attention.”

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