Secrecy surrounding Shohei Ohtani’s free agency is bad for MLB

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The night before this week’s winter meetings launched inside a dystopian resort and convention center, the event’s top storyline was plastered all over Major League Baseball’s official website.

The homepage Saturday featured a box in the top right corner titled “Ohtani Watch,” where readers could “keep track of the latest news and rumors.”

There was a photo of Shohei Ohtani with a map of the United States and various team logos in the background with a question: “Where will Shohei Ohtani sign?” There was another photo of Ohtani to the left. Underneath, another headline: “Ohtani reportedly meeting with clubs; decision coming soon?”

Those are questions everyone converging at the Gaylord Opryland is asking. Every drop of information is analyzed. Every possibility is speculated. MLB knows where the interest lies — and sees an opportunity.

Ohtani’s free agency presents a chance for the league to cross over into the mainstream sports conversation and grab attention from casual fans for a stretch during the offseason. MLB, a league fading from the national consciousness, understands the game. Ohtani and his camp, however, do not.

MLB is an entertainment product. It is competing not only with other sports leagues, but with Netflix, TikTok, etc., for attention and for dollars. The hot stove is a part of the entertainment package — just as free-agency frenzies and trade speculation are for the NFL and NBA. The goal is to reside in the minds of as many people for as many days as possible.

The stove should be turned all the way up this week. Ohtani is a transcendent, unparalleled two-way, two-time MVP on the cusp of signing the richest contract in North American sports history. He is the most marketable talent in the sport. His decision could shift the league’s landscape.

But nobody on the outside — not even the teams trying to lure him — has a clue where Ohtani is signing. Nobody knows, for sure, what Ohtani’s demands or priorities are. Nobody knows, for sure, which teams interest Ohtani. Nobody knows which clubs, if any, have met with Ohtani yet.

The Dodgers, Angels, Chicago Cubs, Toronto Blue Jays and San Francisco Giants are among the potential landing spots. His price could be anywhere between $500 million and $600 million. But if anyone tells you they know what’s going to happen, they’re probably lying. Speculation is thick on thin information. The stove is light on gas.

Angels' Shohei Ohtani walks to the dugout after striking out against the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 3, 2023.

Shohei Ohtani’s season with the Angels ended in early September because of injuries.

(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

That’s by design. Ohtani, 29, has always been shrouded in secrecy as a public figure. But the secrecy has risen to another, strange level in recent months.

Ohtani, who only speaks to reporters during the season on days he pitches, hasn’t spoken to the media since Aug. 9.

Two weeks later, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, ending his season as a pitcher. He chose to continue hitting through Sept. 3 until sustaining an oblique strain. The next day, Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, held an unusual news conference with reporters and declined to specify what was wrong with Ohtani’s elbow.

Ohtani then underwent surgery on his elbow Sept. 19. In a peculiar twist, the Angels released a statement through his agency CAA announcing the development, but the type of procedure was missing. It was later reported by The Times’ Dylan Hernández that Ohtani had undergone what everyone assumed: Tommy John surgery.

Last month, Ohtani’s scheduled conference call with reporters after being named American League MVP was canceled. MLB cited technical difficulties. National League MVP Ronald Acuña Jr., meanwhile, hopped on a call with the media while in uniform before a game in the Venezuelan winter league.

Coincidentally, Ohtani and Balelo have been very protective of the free-agent process — just as they were when Ohtani came over from Japan and chose a club in December 2017. ESPN recently reported that Ohtani’s camp warned clubs that any media leaks would be held against them. Developments, as a result, have been limited because teams are afraid of angering him.

MLB prefers developments because developments produce interest. Just look at its website. It’s why dozens of media members are invited to the winter meetings.

LeBron James, one of the most famous athletes in the world, recognizes the need for stars to generate interest. He speaks to the media almost every day during the NBA season. He co-founded a production company that produces a talk show — “The Shop” — in which he participates in conversations with guests at a barbershop. He’s an invaluable frontman for the NBA.

Like Ohtani, James was once the most sought-after free agent in his league’s history. His free agency in 2010 was feverishly monitored with details.

It was reported when James met with teams — occasionally with details of a team’s pitch included. It was reported, for example, that the Cleveland Cavaliers’ pitch included presenting an animated “Family Guy” style video because it was one of James’ favorite shows. It was reported who accompanied James. It was reported that James was heavily involved in asking questions. It was the sports story of the summer.

The drama concluded with James turning the outcome into an ESPN television special. “The Decision” drew nearly 10 million viewers. It was the most watched cable show that night. James’ choice rocked the sports world and made the Miami Heat a super team.

Ohtani isn’t going to take his talents to the Miami Marlins, and he isn’t going to turn his decision into a TV program. That much we know. We don’t know much else. Six years ago, he shocked the baseball universe by choosing the Angels. Maybe he’ll shock everyone again. Whatever he decides, how he decided will be quickly forgotten. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a letdown for his league.



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