In a Land Full of Stars, Los Angeles Can’t Stop Talking About Ohtani

On Monday, a flawless day for baseball in Los Angeles if it weren’t December, Sean Teng stood in the top deck of Dodger Stadium after a tour and nodded toward the Hollywood sign off in the distance.

Down below stood the right field stands where Shohei Ohtani, who has been called the modern incarnation of Babe Ruth, is expected to deposit home runs next year. The pitcher’s mound awaits him at some point, as well.

“Everything here is fit for Ohtani,” Teng said. “The food. The culture. The weather.”

For months, baseball fans across the world waited to learn where Ohtani would choose to play — and hoped against hope that he would join their favorite team in free agency.

There was the Little League program in Northern California that had offered to rename itself if he were to join the San Francisco Giants. Toronto Blue Jays fans anxiously tracked a mysterious plane from Southern California on Friday, thinking Ohtani might have been coming to announce he was playing for them. (It turned out to be Robert Herjavec from the television show “Shark Tank,” to much disappointment.)

In the end, Ohtani chose Los Angeles, a city so full of celebrities that many residents live their lives without being star struck.

But Ohtani is no ordinary star, and the Dodgers are no ordinary team. In a sprawling region where it’s easy to feel disconnected, Dodger Stadium serves as a unifying force, where tens of thousands of people gather to cheer for a team that regularly draws the most fans in Major League Baseball each season. And Ohtani sits atop baseball’s A-list.

Dodgers fans were still beside themselves days after he agreed to the most lucrative contract in sports history, $700 million over 10 years.

Los Angeles-area commuters stuck in traffic on Monday morning were greeted with, “This is your home of Shohei Ohtani,” when they tuned into the radio station that broadcasts Dodgers games.

Cullan Shewfelt, 32, recalled when he heard the news of Ohtani’s signing on Saturday as he was driving along a freeway.

“I screamed in my car,” Shewfelt recalled.

These Dodgers are a long way from the long-ago Brooklyn teams that were once called “Dem Bums” for their losing ways. But with a recent string of dominant regular seasons followed by quick playoff exits — notwithstanding a World Series title in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season — Los Angeles fans can relate to the Brooklyn fans’ slogan: “Wait ’til next year.”

With the signing of Ohtani, there’s a feeling that next year is upon them.

Ohtani is joining a franchise that has long been a trailblazer in an increasingly diverse and global game. It’s the team of Jackie Robinson; of Fernando Valenzuela, the Mexican pitching sensation whose wondrous rookie season in 1981 helped attract legions of Latino fans who remain loyal to the team to this day; and of Chan Ho Park, who became the first South Korean-born player in the major leagues when he debuted with the Dodgers in 1994.

The Dodgers made the signing official with an announcement Monday evening, but for days fans were already celebrating it as a done deal.

And commentators were comparing the Ohtani deal to the biggest free agent signings in Los Angeles history: Shaquille O’Neal joining the Lakers in 1996; LeBron James signing with the Lakers in 2018; and David Beckham’s deal with the Galaxy in 2007.

A few years ago, Jesus Campos tried to get a job at Dodger Stadium to be near his beloved team. When he wasn’t hired, he found work at the next best place: Guisados, a taco joint on Sunset Boulevard near Vin Scully Avenue, which leads to the ballpark and is named after the Dodgers’ famed announcer who died in 2022.

During the season, when business booms, Campos often takes early shifts so he can run up to the stadium for night games. The ballpark, he said, is his refuge, the only place where he isn’t glued to his phone.

Over the weekend, as he watched rumors swirl on social media that Ohtani would sign with Toronto — provoked by internet sleuths who pointed to the private jet — he became worried.

“With that Toronto news, I was like, damn, we’re losing him,” he said.

Ohtani isn’t exactly a new face on the Southern California sports scene. He played six seasons for the Los Angeles Angels, who reside in Anaheim, only 30 miles down Interstate 5 — or the 5, as locals say — from Dodger Stadium. But it might as well be a world apart.

The Angels are aligned with Orange County, with Anaheim, with the suburbs. In Southern California, they have largely been treated as a second-tier team, while the Dodgers have been sports royalty. The Angels have missed the playoffs for nine straight seasons, despite Ohtani’s winning two Most Valuable Awards, and the Dodgers have made the postseason 11 years in a row — all of which likely factored into Ohtani’s decision.

Outside Angel Stadium, a towering Ohtani mural had already been removed on Sunday. “They took it down fast,” lamented Sam Luevano, who lives nearby and grew up attending Angels games with his father.

He added: “If the Angels were winning, he’d still be here. I love Shohei and it’s not his fault. He has to be on a winning team.”

For Angels fans, Ohtani brought more to the ballpark than just his preternatural, comic-book-like talent at swatting home runs and striking out batters.

“I loved seeing the diversity of the fans in the stadium while he was here,” said Monique Barrios, who works at Angel Stadium and received a baseball signed by Ohtani at the end of the season. “I learned a lot about Japan and its culture.”

As Campos made tacos during the lunch rush on Monday, Japanese journalists sat at a table at Guisados as they took a break from working on a documentary about Ohtani.

Hiroshi Yoshika, a cameraman, said there was no place better for Ohtani than Los Angeles, a city of stars.

“I was expecting him to be a Dodger,” he said. “He likes the West Coast. He wants to be number one. The best in the world.”

Douglas Morino contributed reporting.

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