Shohei Ohtani, the world’s highest-paid athlete, arrives in Hollywood

The Japanese baseball star met the press after signing a record $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers

Shohei Ohtani
Mark Walter, a Dodgers owner, assists Ohtani in donning the Los Angeles team's jersey.CAROLINE BREHMAN (EFE)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

Donning a Dodgers jersey, Shohei Ohtani prepared himself for a swarm of journalists eager to talk to the man behind one of the most sensational news stories in American sports history. Many of them came from Ohtani’s native Japan to witness the event. The global press corps has been captivated by the signing of this Japanese baseball prodigy ever since he announced his chosen team on Instagram five days earlier. “One thing that really stands out in my head is when I had the meeting with the Dodgers ownership group,” said Ohtani. “They said that when they looked back at the last 10 years, even though they’ve made the playoffs every single year, they have only won one World Series ring, and they consider that a failure. When I heard that, I knew they were all about winning, and that’s exactly how I feel.” Ohtani has not played in a single playoff game since he came to Major League Baseball six years ago.

The 29-year-old Ohtani signed a 10-year, $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s the largest deal in sports history and exceeded offers made by the San Francisco Giants and the Toronto Blue Jays. Ohtani’s contract calls for $2 million annual salaries and $68 million deferred each year without interest to be paid in $68 million installments between 2034 and 2043. This deferred payment arrangement allows the team, which last won the World Series in 2020, enough payroll flexibility to continue strengthening its roster. “I was doing some calculations... I figured if I defer as much money as I can, that’s going to help the Dodgers be able to sign better players and make a better team. I felt like that was worth it and I was willing to go that direction,” said Ohtani in his first press conference in four months.

The deferral arrangement also helps Ohtani keep most of his money by avoiding hefty taxes. With a 13.3% tax rate in California, he can receive a large part of his compensation after he retires and moves out of state. With the Ohtani contract, the Dodgers have made a huge investment — $857 million in salaries — through 2044, including $120 million to Mookie Betts and $57 million to Freddie Freeman.

Financier Mark Walter was one of the key figures in making Ohtani’s contract a reality and was at his side during the December 14 press conference. Walter is the controlling partner of the ownership group that purchased the Dodgers in 2012 for $2.15 billion, outbidding the closest rival by over $800 million. The group includes well-known figures like Los Angeles Lakers legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

“I’ve never seen a press conference so packed! I mean, I remember when Shaquille O’Neill joined the Lakers in ‘96, Wayne Gretzky to the Kings [NHL], Fernando Valenzuela, but seriously, nothing compares to the interest in Ohtani,” said Jaime Jarrín, the Spanish-language voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1959.

Journalists wait in line at Dodgers Stadium for the Shohei Ohtani press conference.
Journalists wait in line at Dodgers Stadium for the Shohei Ohtani press conference.CAROLINE BREHMAN (EFE)

Takeshi Watanabe, a sports editor for the Japanese Nikkei newspaper, was among the large delegation of Asian journalists at the press conference. To explain the magnitude of Ohtani’s superstardom, Watanabe said, “Shohei is the only athlete in Japan who has a daily television program completely dedicated to him. Even when he doesn’t play.”

Ohtani is not the first Japanese player to wear a Dodgers jersey. The team also had another Japanese baseball legend, pitcher Hideo Nomo, who was the MLB Rookie of the Year in 1995. Nomo was one of Ohtani’s idols, and paved the way for other players like Hiroki Kuroda, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. “Ohtani is a better hitter and pitcher than all of them.”

Mysterious surgery

The Dodgers have bet the farm on Ohtani even though he’s not at 100% after undergoing surgery for a pitching injury in August. This is his second procedure after having Tommy John surgery in 2018. Since Ohtani won’t be able to pitch until 2025, the Dodger will play him as their designated hitter. Prior to his injury, Ohtani was in the running to win the American League home run title with 44.

Ohtani hasn’t disclosed all the details of his second operation, which was performed by the same doctor who did his Tommy John surgery — Dr. Neal ElAttrache — the team doctor for the Dodgers and the LA Rams of the NFL. The surgery cut Ohtani’s season short and ended his six-year tenure with the Los Angeles Angels. “I’m not a medical expert, but I can say that it was a different operation than the first. You should ask my doctor,” said Ohtani through his interpreter and close friend, Ippei Mizuhara.

Ohtani says he has regained some flexibility and has started practicing his swing. “I’m on track to be ready for opening day next year. I’m optimistic and even think I can be ready for some spring training games,” he said. Ohtani will have to be ready because his legions of devoted fans can barely wait. In just two days, Ohtani’s number 17 Dodger jersey shattered the sales record of…? You guessed it — Lionel Messi.

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