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Angels Adapt to Post-Ohtani Era: “Feels Like Being Exiled from the Band”

TEMPE, Ariz. — Every morning for the past six years, no matter how early Angels players and staff got to Tempe Diablo Stadium, they saw a throng of Japanese media standing on the Tempe Butte mountain overlooking the team’s spring training complex. This wasn’t a recreational 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, the group 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,” Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon said of a group that routinely included 50 reporters, and could swell to upwards of 70 for special Ohtani occasions, like his first-ever spring training press conference, which the team had to hold at an off-site hotel to manage the crowd.

“They said they had to (be here),” Angels bench coach Ray Montgomery said, shaking his head. “I asked why, and they said in case Ohtani showed up early.”

Ohtani’s massive celebrity, and the attention that came with it, never calmed down. When he came to Tempe in 2018 as a 23-year-old Japanese star, no one was sure how Ohtani’s talents as both a pitcher and hitter would translate. Now, there is no doubt that the three-time All-Star, two-time AL MVP, two-time Silver Slugger and Rookie of the Year is a generational talent.

Ohtani’s star power is now 26 miles down the road, at Dodgers camp in Glendale. If you’ve been living under a rock, the Dodgers signed Ohtani to a ten-year, $700 million contract this past offseason. If you’ve been living near Tempe Buttes, well, the view just got a lot more scenic.

So what happens when the mountain is empty again? What is life like when the Ohtani circus leaves town?

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

In past years, the Tempe Butte mountain overlooking the Angels’ parking lot hosted upwards of 50 members of the Japanese media before sunrise every day. (Sam Blum / The Athletic)

The biggest change, other than no one watching team members get in and out of their cars, has been inside the clubhouse. It is, and always has been, the players’ space. But when Ohtani was there, that massive 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,” said Angels outfielder Taylor Ward.

Losing a nine-WAR player does not make any team better. But it’s allowed them 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 more about Ohtani. If cameras caught you so much as nodding at the two-way superstar, the media would ask you to talk about it.

“I always felt that (players were wary of us). We’re basically here to cover one guy, but we’re trying to get other stuff related to the one guy,” said one Japanese reporter who has covered Ohtani regularly for years, and asked for anonymity in order to speak freely.

The Angels PR 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. Angels communications manager Grace McNamee, who speaks Japanese, would make notes on Ohtani’s unique 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 fellow backstop Chad Wallach have enough space there on a March morning 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 all of baseball last year: It’s still in active Angels circulation.

Ohtani’s number — the famed red-and-white No. 17 — now belongs to … drumroll, please … non-roster 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 Anaheim in mid-January. He started to wonder in the weeks before spring training started: Would the Angels give it away so soon?

He got his answer the first day of camp. The 32-year-old utility man stressed that the No. 17 doesn’t have any special significance for him; it was just what the Royals gave him when he was starting his career.

Now that number might make him appear to be one of the most popular non-roster invitees in Tempe Diablo Stadium history.

“There might be a lot of 17s (in the stands),” said Dozier, who has already been reassigned to minor league camp, meaning he won’t make the Angels’ Opening Day roster. “Just don’t look at the last name, look at the number.”

And don’t look too close in the left clubhouse corner.

Angels starting 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 direct left of the clubhouse door. Any end spot in baseball clubhouses is typically taken by veterans and stars, providing ample space — they often use the locker next to them for overflow — and a quick exit from the media.

“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.”

This spring at Angels camp has seen ample parking, more ticket availability and smaller crowds of autograph seekers. (Photo by Masterpress / Getty Images)

What’s quickly lost its allure is the incessant questions about The Guy Who Isn’t Here. The Angels players, still burdened with daily Ohtani inquiries all spring, had much bigger queries heading into camp, like: Will there still be sushi?

Every spring, the Angels send out a survey to players gauging their nutritional wants and needs for the upcoming season. Without Ohtani, multiple players feared the steady stream of Japanese cuisine would slow down to a trickle, making “Are we still going to have sushi?” a common write-in question. The answer was yes. Ohtani actually wasn’t the biggest daily sushi consumer on the team; that title likely belongs to Mike Trout or Logan O’Hoppe.

Trout is also the only current Angels player who can remember Life Without Ohtani, and the fact that Ohtani’s arrival in 2018 didn’t actually result in more sushi, or in any different foods in the team’s spring facility at all. Ohtani had a nutritionist in Japan who communicated with the Angels staff in an early meeting. During the season, he often brought in his own food. In Tempe, one of Ohtani’s earliest English phrases to staffers was, “I’m good.”

Following a disappointing 2020 season, Ohtani used blood analysis to determine which foods produced his best results and optimized his recovery. Timing was equally critical. On a fairly regimented schedule, his interpreter Ippei Mizuhara would often send order requests ahead to the Angels kitchen staff so Ohtani’s food — a rotating menu that always included lean protein, vegetables and carbohydrates — would be ready when it was needed, which was hardly ever during the players’ lunch rush. Ohtani’s schedule was so unique that he often ate with just Mizuhara and infielder David Fletcher.

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 up for the team. Multiple Angels lamented the loss.

Potential iron deficiencies aside, everything is a little bit quieter for the Angels post-Ohtani. Parking is ample at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Tickets are easy to get. The autograph lines for players entering and leaving the stadium are minuscule in comparison to previous years. The Angels’ head security guard focused much of his attention on Ohtani, and the crowd of fans and reporters that entered into and out of his orbit. Even Mizuhara often had fans with signs waiting for him as he exited the team bus. As one player described it, there’s now far less commotion.

“He brings such a crowd with him, not a bad thing, because (of) the way he handled himself on the field,” said Trout.

“I’ve never been around somebody that big. I don’t think baseball has seen anybody that big,” Rendon said. “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 have shipped up to Los Angeles. Only a short drive, but a world away.

(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Aaron Doster / Getty; Michael Owens / Getty)


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