Introductions are important in Japanese culture, so much so there are entire rituals built around them.
When Japanese reporters meet someone for the first time, for example, they will hold out their business cards with both hands and bow. In instances in which they introduce themselves to people they consider important, they might even present them with gifts.
Shohei Ohtani was born and raised in the same country as them, which explains why he has made it a point to speak to a wide range of Dodgers players and staffers in his first handful of days at the team’s spring-training facility.
“I approach them,” Ohtani said in Japanese.
Ohtani doesn’t walk around with the self-importance of a player who signed a $700-million contract over the winter, and his low-key demeanor has won over many of the people who share his new workspace.
“There’s just a great sense of humility and kindness,” manager Dave Roberts said.
As well as Ohtani has presented himself, he remains concerned he could be on the verge of committing a major error. Specifically, he’s afraid he might introduce himself to the same person twice, which would be considered extremely disrespectful in his homeland.
“I have to remember [them] on the first shot,” Ohtani said with a laugh.
Ohtani was an early arrival at camp, where the team’s pitchers and catchers worked out for the first time Friday. This spring training figures to be a fascinating social experiment, in which a veteran-laden, 100-win team will take in the only player in the major leagues who transcends the sport.
“It’s hard to ignore who he is as a ballplayer, the contract,” Roberts said.
Ohtani is mindful of the situation.
“I think communicating with teammates and the coaching staff comes first,” Ohtani said.
Ohtani said establishing communication will help him better prepare for the upcoming season, as he can learn how the Dodgers prefer to train their players and they can learn about what he prioritizes. Later, as he progresses in his hitting program, the Dodgers can learn about his hitting philosophy and he about theirs.
Ohtani speaks enough English to where he and Roberts can speak to each other without the help of his interpreter.
“I don’t think he wants me to say this, but I think so,” Roberts said.
Roberts said he hasn’t had any extensive conversations with Ohtani but is starting to get a feel for him as a person. While complimenting Ohtani for his modesty, Roberts also said, “There’s a lion in there.”
The manager continued, “For me, that’s the perfect combo. I’m really excited to learn more about him.”
Because of his training habits, Ohtani has endeared himself not only to Roberts but also his teammates. In the weeks before they reported to their spring-training facility, several players worked out at Dodger Stadium, including Ohtani.
“Everyone knows how good of a baseball player he is, but seeing the work that goes behind it is really impressive,” infielder Gavin Lux said.
President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said he was struck by how purposeful Ohtani was with everything he did.
“Most guys get in the cage and they just kind of mindlessly swing,” Friedman said. “He does this whole pre-pitch routine between every single swing and just how intentional every single thing he does, whether it’s in the weight room, the cage, on the field, you can’t really fully appreciate until you see it.”
For his part, Ohtani said he enjoyed spending time at Dodger Stadium with Lux and right-hander Walker Buehler.
In the team’s spring-training clubhouse, Ohtani’s locker is between those of All-Star infielder Mookie Betts and right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Betts and the team’s other position players don’t have to report to camp until Tuesday.
Asked what kind of presence Yamamoto was to him, Ohtani joked, “Right now? He’s a teammate.”
When the laughter around him subsided, Ohtani explained, “Because he’s Japanese, it’s easier to communicate with him, but he’s one teammate. Regardless of whether they’re Japanese, everyone here is a teammate.”
This is what Roberts also wants for Ohtani, for him to be “like everybody else.”
“That’s what we all want,” Roberts said. “I know it’s maybe sometimes easier said than done, but that’s the goal.”
However, if Ohtani experiences any of the light-hearted forms of hazing to which first-year players are subjected, Roberts said he would have no part of it. Asked if he would force Ohtani to sing or dance in one of the team’s morning meetings, Roberts chuckled and replied, “I won’t be doing that, I won’t be doing that.”
Ohtani isn’t like everybody else, after all. The Dodgers aren’t about to make him do something he doesn’t want to do.