GLENDALE, Ariz. — Andrew Friedman offers no disguise. He agrees with the designation of Shohei Ohtani as his “white whale” and is kind enough to grimace only slightly when asked about “harpooning him” after a decade-plus pursuit.
In 2012, when Ohtani was contemplating jumping straight from high school to sign with a MLB team, Friedman was the Rays general manager, and despite the longest of long shots that the Japanese phenom would 1) make the unprecedented leap from Japanese high school and 2) do it for Tampa Bay, Friedman invested his organization to try.
The MLB finalists — before Ohtani decided to stay and play for the Nippon Ham Fighters — were the Red Sox and Dodgers, who were on their own single-minded quest for the two-way star.
The two fixated parties were united in 2017 when Friedman, now Dodgers president of baseball operations, went into hard-sell mode once it was clear the two-way phenom was definitely coming to the States. He recognized, with no designated hitter in the National League, that he was operating at a disadvantage. But the Dodgers crafted a presentation in which they showed how they could find 300 plate appearances between leading him off when he was the starting pitcher, having him as the DH in all the interleague games in AL parks and using him as a pinch-hitter 80 or more times.
They showcased Los Angeles and their clubhouse culture and winning, and when Ohtani picked the Angels and certain DH at-bats, Friedman received a text from his brother, Brent: “Great job selling him on the L.A. area.”
Friedman did the due diligence at the trade deadlines of 2022 and 2023, when there was speculation that the Angels might deal Ohtani, though down deep Friedman did not believe the Angels would move Ohtani and — if they did — there was a better chance of him going to the Pittsburgh Penguins than shipping him up I-5 to their colossus neighbor.
But Friedman was spending 2022-23 reorganizing payroll to make sure there would be no financial impediments while aligning his organization for this pitch. The Dodgers were viewed as frontrunners months before free agency even began and were not deterred even when Ohtani needed a second Tommy John surgery that will assure he does not pitch before 2025. Friedman exited a phone call with the Ohtani camp on the morning of Dec. 8 feeling great about their chances. And then …
Reports began emanating that Ohtani was signing with the Blue Jays. That there was a private plane and he was en route to Toronto. What struck Friedman was the specificity of who was meeting the Ohtani group at Rogers Centre and private flight numbers.
So, Friedman tried to reach Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, and he “red-phoned me [declined the call].” That only intensified anxiety. Was the white whale slipping away again?
Friedman can tell you how long the wait was until Balelo actually called back — eight minutes.
Balelo said no decision had been made. Friedman rationalized back that it is what Balelo would say even if there was a decision, because it had been made clear to all involved that Ohtani would be breaking his own news on Instagram. Thus, to tell the Dodgers they were out would mean it was the Blue Jays and, thus, no Ohtani bomb with the news.
But in this clandestine operation, that was all Friedman received. Until the next day. He, by chance, was in Anaheim with his wife, Robin, to watch their 11-year-old, Zach, play soccer. His cell rang. It was Balelo, who said, “I just want to let you know that Shohei Ohtani is a Dodger.”
More than a decade, and finally those words. Friedman told his wife the news that Ohtani would soon release to the world. Friedman reached out to ownership and on Slack to his main lieutenants.
Then he settled on an emotion from the range he was experiencing: “Euphoria. I mean, especially in light of what happened the day before and how good we had felt about our conversations [with the Ohtani camp] and I felt pretty confident, and then an hour later the Blue Jays stuff breaks.”
Friedman insists the contract structure — 10 years at $700 million, but with $68 million of the $70 million annually deferred — really was Ohtani’s idea to assure that after all his losing with the Angels, the Dodgers would not be jammed up financially and would continue to bulk up the roster to try to win.
“I would not have had the guts to propose that deferral schedule,” he said.
The deal is great for the Dodgers. The deferrals drop the current day value to a tad over $46 million for luxury-tax purposes. Ohtani will mean such big business for the Dodgers that so much of his contract will be paid by his presence.
Friedman understood this. He had led a Dodgers contingent to Tokyo in February to watch Team Japan work out in preparation for the World Baseball Classic. Friedman was not just blown away by the pitching talent, but that 15,000-20,000 crazed fans were watching workouts, many wearing MLB paraphernalia of various teams.
“It was so splintered,” he said. “That kind of initiated a lot of our internal conversations about the potential impact of a country so passionate about baseball, with their respective MLB teams that they root for, but what if we could become their Major League Baseball team, and just the potential impact of that. After we signed Shohei, the hysteria around it, we heard about how difficult it was for stores in Japan to keep Dodgers hats in stock.
“This signing, from our standpoint, was about the level of talent that we added and the effect it has on our championship odds. But a really helpful aspect of this deal is the potential tail of value of kids growing up [in Japan] being passionate Dodger fans, turning into really good players in the NPB [Nippon Professional Baseball], and then in an ideal world wanting to be a Dodger when they come over to play Major League Baseball.”
The Dodgers already have felt some of this with Ohtani’s addition being a contributing factor to land Yoshinobu Yamamoto — well, that and $325 million. But it also has the Dodgers wondering about what has been another obsession of the organization and Friedman. After all, with one big fish landed, it is onto the next white whale.
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