A WIN FOR BASEBALL
By KEN ROSENTHAL Ken Rosenthal is a senior M.L.B. writer for The Athletic.
Ohtani is the reason the game is creating more buzz than it has in recent memory.
The usual howls are coming. The large-market teams end up with all the best players. A $700 million contract is outrageous. Baseball needs a salary cap.
We’ve been hearing this talk for years. The small-market frustration, to a degree, is understandable. But the most expensive teams — see the 2023 Mets, Yankees and Padres — do not always win.
It would be difficult for anyone to argue that baseball is broken. If anything, baseball appears headed for a renaissance. And Shohei Ohtani, the sport’s biggest star and most transcendent figure, is the reason the game is creating more buzz than at any point in recent years, and maybe decades.
Fans of the losing bidders — the Chicago Cubs, the San Francisco Giants and, most of all, the Toronto Blue Jays — will not want to hear this. Fans of teams in the game’s smallest markets will want to hear it even less. But Ohtani’s choice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who play in the nation’s second-largest media market, only enhances his stature, and that of his sport.
He now owns the richest deal in sports, even if the massive deferrals reduce the present-day value of his contract. He will be playing for the game’s most successful regular-season franchise over the past decade, but one that has not won a World Series in a full season since 1988. All eyes will be on him, even those of casual fans.
How good will the Dodgers’ lineup be with Ohtani, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman? Can Ohtani get even better as a hitter entering his age-29 season? And the big one: Will Ohtani, after undergoing his second major elbow surgery in five years, return as an effective pitcher in 2025, and stay healthy enough to remain a two-way threat for even half of this 10-year deal?
Similar questions would have applied if Ohtani had chosen the Blue Jays, but his chances of playing deep into the postseason and appearing on the sport’s biggest stages would not have been as high. True, the Jays have made the playoffs three of the past four years. But they were swept in the first round each time. Playing in the game’s most competitive division, the American League East, they were hardly assured of future success, with or without Ohtani.
The reality, too, is this: The platform for Ohtani in Toronto would have been smaller. Toronto is a wonderful international city, the largest in Canada. But because television ratings in Canada do not count in the U.S., major networks such as Fox, ESPN and TBS might have been reluctant to carry Jays games during the regular season, even with Ohtani. And while fans could have found other ways to watch Ohtani, the exposure just would not have been the same.
The national networks always max out on the number of Dodgers and Yankees games the league allows them to carry, simply because of the sizes of those markets. The number cannot increase now with Ohtani in Los Angeles and Juan Soto in New York. But the promotion, the exposure, the general feel overall will just be bigger than it would have been in Toronto.
Another thing: Ohtani’s choice will only enhance the David and Goliath aspect of the sport, and that is not a bad outcome. Again, fans in smaller markets will not want to hear it. But few things should be more satisfying to those fans than seeing their teams knock off one of the bigmoney behemoths. And it happens.
The Baltimore Orioles’ opening day payroll last season ranked 29th. They won the big, bad A.L. East. The Arizona Diamondbacks’ payroll ranked 21st. They made it to the World Series, upsetting two far more expensive teams, the Dodgers and the Phillies, along the way.
The Dodgers once again seem poised to dominate the regular season in 2024, particularly in the National League West. They will need to bolster their starting pitching, and they almost certainly will. But the Padres are cutting payroll. The Rockies are the Rockies. The Diamondbacks should be even better, but in failing to land Ohtani, the Giants just struck out on yet another big star.
The postseason, though, will be another matter, just as it often is for the Dodgers. Betts and Freeman didn’t hit against the Diamondbacks in their N.L. division series, and the Dodgers were swept. It’s difficult to imagine Betts, Freeman and Ohtani all flailing at once, but who can predict these things? Ohtani, remember, has yet to even play in the postseason. How he handles the pressure of October will be another compelling story line.
The usual howls are coming. They came at the dawn of free agency. They came when Reggie Jackson went to the Yankees on a five-year, $3.5 million deal in 1976. When Alex Rodriguez signed with the Rangers for $252 million in 2001. When Judge returned to the Yankees last off-season for $360 million.
Ohtani almost doubled Judge’s contract.
The game isn’t about to crumble. The game is just doing fine.
New York Times