April 16, 2024

Every time Joe Kelly finished one answer Wednesday, another half-dozen questions were shouted straight to his face.

A day before Shohei Ohtani was set to be officially introduced by the Dodgers, Kelly was greeted at a Dodger Stadium charity event by dozens of media members, clumped in a horde several rows deep, all eager to ask about his newest superstar teammate.

If the spotlight on the Dodgers’ organization was bright before, Ohtani’s presence is only amplifying it.

What was Kelly’s reaction to the 10-year, $700 million signing?

“I was excited, man,” the veteran reliever said. “He’s a great person.”

What did Kelly — donning a No. 99 jersey instead of his customary No. 17, which now belongs to Ohtani — get in return for the jersey swap?

“There’s a list,” he said with a smirk. “No comment yet.”

Most of all, was he prepared to answer Ohtani questions all year?

“Uhh, maybe once a week,” he said with a laugh.

It’s a trade-off he and his teammates will happily make, embracing the extra attention — and inevitable barrage of Ohtani-related questions — in hopes the two-time MVP will lead the club back to baseball’s summit, counting on him to help reverse their recent, underwhelming postseason fortunes.

Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly chats with Mookie Betts in the dugout between innings

Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly (17) chats with Mookie Betts (50) between innings during a Sept. 23 game against the Giants at Dodger Stadium.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“You need a guy like that, who’s obviously not afraid and wants to be the star in a big moment,” Kelly said. “Especially because here with the Dodgers organization where we make it to the playoffs, our goal is to win the World Series every year. So if you can put in players who aren’t afraid of the moment, it goes a long way here.”

Kelly’s teammates have offered similar sentiments in the days since Ohtani announced he was signing with the Dodgers.

Third baseman Max Muncy said he was putting his kids down for a nap in his Dallas-area home Saturday afternoon when his wife came upstairs and asked him how he felt about playing with Ohtani.

“I didn’t have any details,” Muncy said during the “Foul Territory” video podcast, “but I saw 10 years, $700 million and thought, ‘Oh man, that’s a lot of money.’”

Pitcher Walker Buehler, speaking during “The Just Baseball Show” podcast, didn’t seem surprised by the contract figure.

“I told you guys–$35-million pitcher, $35-million hitter,” Buehler said of Ohtani, who will be limited to hitting in 2024 while he recovers from his second Tommy John surgery. “There’s never been anyone like him. He does both at a very high level. He’s the biggest free agent in sports, ever, so it makes a lot of sense.”

What did catch Buehler by surprise was Ohtani’s decision to defer $680 million of the contract until after its completion, thus reducing his annual salary figure for competitive balance tax purposes to about $46 million a year and freeing up resources for the Dodgers to spend elsewhere.

“The deferrals are something people don’t think about,” said Buehler, who is also recovering from a second Tommy John surgery, “but for him to take a step back, to defer some money to ease the burden on the payroll, it shows what he wants out of playing for our team.”

Kelly, who also re-signed with the Dodgers this winter after having a club option declined at the end of last season, concurred when asked about Ohtani’s deferrals Wednesday.

“It just shows what kind of guy he is,” Kelly said. “Obviously with his deal, you’re gonna have wiggle room for the next decade.”

Muncy, who slugged 36 homers and drove in 105 runs last season, said it will be “pretty exciting” to hit behind a top-of-the-order trio of Betts, Freddie Freeman and Ohtani, who have won four MVP awards between them and combined for 112 homers, 125 doubles and 304 RBIs last season.

“I’m just gonna be happy to be in that lineup with all the superstars we have in there,” Muncy said. “There are very few people in this game who you can expect something cool out of on a daily basis, and [Ohtani] is definitely one of them … you just don’t know what he’s gonna do … he’s a unicorn with that kind of stuff.”

Dodgers closer Evan Phillips, in interviews with MLB Network Radio and AM 570’s Dodgers Talk, said the bullpen group text chain and the entire team’s text chain were “going crazy” after news of Ohtani’s signing broke Saturday.

“It’s unprecedented what we’ve seen Shohei do in years’ past,” Phillips said. “I think the earnings he’ll generate for the Dodgers off the field, his impact as a whole, is going to be record-setting, so he deserves a record-setting contract.

“One of the best players on the planet is going to be a teammate of mine. This guy is so talented on both sides of the ball. It’s going to be an absolute game-changer for us.”

The Angels' Shohei Ohtani and the Dodgers' Mookie Betts greet each other at second base during a July 7 game

The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani and the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts greet each other at second base during a July 7 game at Dodger Stadium.

(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

And not just on the field. The Dodgers have had 10 other Japanese-born players, including Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda and Hiroki Kuroda in the past 15 years, but none had the massive media following of Ohtani, who will could replicate the same kind of buzz that Hideo Nomo did when he joined the Dodgers in 1995.

“I haven’t even thought about that aspect of it,” Muncy said when asked about the Shohei storm that’s brewing. “They might have to make some quick renovations to Camelback Ranch, [the team’s spring-training complex in Glendale, Ariz.]

“It’s a very open facility in terms of getting to the back fields, the main fields. There’s gonna be a lot of people back there [next] year. I think we’re going to have to add a little to our security team.”

Kelly got to experience that media storm first-hand Wednesday.

Shohei Ohtani is surrounded by journalists during All-Star Game week festivities on July 10 in Seattle.

Shohei Ohtani is surrounded by journalists during All-Star Game week festivities on July 10 in Seattle.

(Lindsey Wasson / Associated Press)

While the focus of the afternoon was on the non-profit Baby2Baby foundation — whose CEOs, Norah Weinstein and Kelly Sawyer Patricof oversaw a holiday distribution event for 600 kids in need from the L.A. Unified School District — the attention turned to Ohtani the minute Kelly met with reporters.

While other Dodger players had hoped for Ohtani to sign in L.A., Kelly and his wife, Ashley, took their courtship a step further, posting a video of Ashley offering to donate all of Kelly’s No. 17 gear — a reminder to Ohtani that he was more than welcome to the number if he came to Chavez Ravine.

“He was like, ‘I love the video,’” Kelly said, having met with Ohtani earlier Wednesday. “He told me thank you for the number. It’s cool. He’s a great person. We’re all very excited as a unit, as a staff. It’s gonna be fun.”

So, should Ashley be getting partial credit for the signing then?

“Yeah, she should, so we’re trying to get her some dugout seats now,” Kelly said with a chuckle. “When he saw the video and was told we were OK with it — I’m not gonna say it persuaded him a ton — but, there’s probably at least 7% in there that helped make it happen.”

The only math that truly matters: Ohtani’s new teammates are in seemingly unanimous approval of his signing, even if it means fielding question after question about the superstar’s arrival.

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