April 19, 2024

The crowd gasped.

Was this really happening?

A dull desert afternoon suddenly became a noisy celebration of dazzling disbelief.

This was really happening!

Shohei Ohtani, down to his last pitch in what had been a failure of a first game in a Dodgers uniform, clubbed that pitch high into the blue midday sky, the ball soaring over an Air National Guard advertisement before dropping into the grassy area beyond the left-field wall.

And for his first act, Babe Ruth was Babe Ruth.

It’s real. It’s him. And, goodness, it chills, Ohtani officially introducing himself to Dodgers fans Tuesday afternoon at Camelback Ranch by creating massive drama out of thin air

With two out in the fifth inning against Chicago White Sox pitcher Dominic Leone, after striking out and grounding into a double play in his previous two plate appearances, Ohtani hit a two-out, two-strike, two-run homer to cap his spring training debut.

Are you kidding me?

Prepare your ooooohs, tune up those aaaaahs, baseball’s best player is officially swinging his way to Los Angeles.

“The best part was that I was able to get out there and come out of it according to plan,” the understated Ohtani said in Japanese.

He is officially working his way back from last fall’s elbow surgery, which will prevent him from pitching this season. But the hitting part? Well, that seemed just fine.

When he hit the home run, I also gasped. I thought it was a lost afternoon. I thought the debut had been a bust. The strikeout froze him. The grounder was on the first pitch. I was going to write some joke involving $700 million.

And for his first act, Ohtani got the last word.

“It’s remarkable,” manager Dave Roberts said. “There’s been so many huge moments for him in his career. And he always seems to rise to those moments. I have a good feeling there is more to come.”

Truthfully, Ohtani had already won the day even if his bat never touched the ball.

Before the game, fans filled the seats down the left-field line for a cheering glimpse of him walking into the stadium. Some shouted, “Shohei! Shoehei!” Many wore Ohtani jerseys. Seemingly everyone waved a phone.

Even after he left the game immediately following his blast, the cheers kept coming. His home run not only grabbed the headlines, but it sparked a Dodgers comeback in an eventual 9-6 victory.

“A lot of people came to watch and the cheers were very loud,” Ohtani said.

Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani signs autographs for fans before a game Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox.

Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani signs autographs for fans before a game Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

It’s not just the fans who are frantic.

During Ohtani’s postgame news conference, the several dozen reporters were crowded so tightly in front of him that the session was interrupted when a photographer loudly crashed down from his stool.

Spend an afternoon here and it’s obvious: The Dodgers aren’t just Ohtani’s team, they’re his stage, and he has already captivated his new audience with sizzle and swagger.

“The talent on the field, the eyeballs, the media attention off the field, this is going to raise the bar for all of us,” Roberts said.

“If we’re not excited about today, then I don’t know what any of us are doing here.”

The Ohtani Experience began Tuesday when he entered the locker room at 8:35 a.m., upon which two things became obvious.

First, he is enormous, legs like tree trunks, shoulders for miles.

And second, nobody is even looking at him.

There are several dozen reporters hanging around the clubhouse hoping to interview players, but the biggest star is ignored, as if there were an invisible barrier around his locker.

Turns out, there is. Ohtani talks only at specific planned times as approved by his agent, Nez Balelo. Unlike other players who are theoretically available spontaneously, Ohtani is off-limits unless his agent approves.

He is here to win games, not sell the game, which is unfortunate for the game, but his fans don’t seem to mind. Every spring morning here, Camelback Ranch is startled with screams that seem to come from nowhere. The sound is of folks who have spotted Ohtani simply walking to work.

His schedule is not public, but you always know where he is, when hundreds are suddenly sprinting past you to get a glimpse.

The Ohtani Experience continued Tuesday when the Dodgers made a surprise lineup announcement, with Ohtani batting second between Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman instead of after them. It turns out, instead of Ohtani protecting Freeman, the Dodgers decided it was better if Freeman protected Ohtani.

“If you’re looking at the DNA of the two hitters, Shohei is more of a free swinger than Freddie is,” Roberts said.

“If you have somebody like Freddie behind him … there’s also a chance they should be in the strike zone a little more. … Freddie is the biggest presence for protection behind Shohei.”

Ohtani seemed uncertain of the fit. Like everything with Ohtani, this will be a development worth watching.

“I wonder, I won’t know until I’m standing in there,” he said.

“I have Mookie and Freddie in front of me and behind me, and we have good hitters after that too. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will be. One at-bat at a time, I’d like to study and adjust.”

No matter how the Big Three are arranged, just looking at the top of the Dodgers lineup is awe-inspiring. Only 12 times in history have three former MVPs batted consecutively in a lineup, and it hasn’t happened in a regular-season game in 28 years.

“You get a big glow on your face when you look at Ohtani, Freeman and Betts,” Roberts said.

That glow was fueled Tuesday by the newest Dodger, who introduced himself with an embrace that looked like spring but felt like autumn.

Shohei Ohtani is here. He’s just getting started. Gasp.

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