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Column: Shohei Ohtani’s star power transforms Angels into international tourist attraction

Angels fans Katie Rhodes, left, and Matt Guerrero, right, take a photo outside Angel Stadium.
Angels fans Katie Rhodes, left, and Matt Guerrero, right, take a photo outside Angel Stadium before the team’s home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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The sign was written by hand, with love, not on an enormous poster but on a sheet torn from a notebook. “We’re here on our honeymoon!”

The Angels threw a party for their fans before their home opener Friday, and Yasutaba and Rina Miki came from Tokyo. They could have gone anywhere in the world for their honeymoon. They came to Anaheim, to see Shohei Ohtani.

Anna Lin came from Taiwan, happily displaying a sign with Ohtani’s name in Japanese letters and this message in English : “this is my 1st time to see you!!! 04/07/2023”

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Keiichi and Toshimi Otake came from Kyoto, waving handmade fans with Ohtani’s picture on one side and “Come on Ohtani” on the other, with Ohtani’s name in Japanese letters. The Otakes will be back at Angel Stadium on Saturday. They do not plan to visit Disneyland or the beach on their trip.

“Shohei only,” Keiichi said.

Two Shohei Ohtani fans from Japan wear Angels gear. A man holds a white piece of paper with a message on it.
Yasutaba and Rina Miki, Shohei Ohtani fans from Tokyo on their honeymoon, show their support for the Angels and the Japanese star ahead of the team’s home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday.
(Bill Shaikin / Los Angeles Times)

The Angels are an international tourist attraction. They are not a perennial contender, the way they used to be when Vladimir Guerrero played here.

Guerrero, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a 4-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, is the first player to wear an Angels cap on his Hall of Fame plaque. Mike Trout will be the second.

Ohtani could be the third, if he stays with the Angels, as Trout has. Ohtani also could leave his first major league team to play for a winner, as Guerrero did.

It’s a testament to Ohtani that he is so great and unique that the Angels’ top story line in 2023 is whether Ohtani will play for them in 2024, ahead even of whether the Angels can make the playoffs for the first time in nine years. On that score, Ohtani was perfectly polite Friday, telling fans that his World Baseball Classic-clinching strikeout of Trout was his career highlight “as of now.”

Anna Lin, a Shohei Ohtani fan from Taiwan, shows her support for the Angels star.
Anna Lin, a Shohei Ohtani fan from Taiwan, shows her support for the Angels star before the team’s home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays at Angel Stadium.
(Bill Shaikin / Los Angeles Times)

Said Ohtani: “Hopefully, we’ll have something greater this season with the Angels.”

The Angels rolled out the red carpet in front of their stadium Friday afternoon, then the men in uniform walked along it, as models and Hollywood stars so often do.

“I had no idea where to put my hands,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said.

There was music and merchandise. There were food trucks and photo opportunities, including one in which fans could take a picture next to a cardboard cutout of Ohtani. There were more than 2,000 fans, and a glance at their backs left no doubt which two players run this team.

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In 2002, when the Angels won their only World Series championship, fans wore jerseys representing their favorites on a roster without a superstar: Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson and Troy Glaus, David Eckstein and Scott Spiezio, Troy Percival and Francisco Rodriguez, and others.

At Friday’s pregame party, five out of every six jerseys appeared to feature Ohtani or Trout. At a merchandise stand on the club level, the only jerseys on sale with player names were ones with Ohtani or Trout.

When Trout made his appearance at the party, he received a rousing ovation. The Angels’ radio crew set him up to greet a 13-year-old boy, and Trout asked the boy whether he played baseball.

Mike Trout gives the Angels an early lead and Patrick Sandoval pitches a strong game, but a three-run home run by Bo Bichette lifts Toronto to a 4-3 win.

April 7, 2023

“I used to play,” the boy said.

Trout, a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, asked the boy for his favorite football team. The Denver Broncos, the boy said.

“Sorry to hear,” Trout said. “You can be an Eagles fan if you want.”

Ohtani made his appearance a few minutes later, but not before the Angels stationed extra staffers to stand between the barriers and the red carpet, just in case. The fans chanted “SHO-HEI,” held cellphones aloft to capture the moment and scrambled toward the radio interview area for a closer look at Ohtani.

Doris Drahonovsky, left, laughs next to a cardboard cutout of Shohei Ohtani outside Angel Stadium on Friday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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Tammy and Richard Plotter, take a selfie as fans gather outside Angel Stadium before Friday's game.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

When Ohtani walked back inside the stadium, his turn on the red carpet complete, a fair number of fans streamed into the parking lot. Other players would appear, but the two everyone wanted to see had come and gone.

For today, the Angels are in first place in the American League West. The tomorrows will come, and with them the answers to whether the Angels can win again, and whether Ohtani wishes to play for them again.

For today, the honeymooners from Tokyo are seeing Ohtani, and stocking up here on Angels caps, and Angels jerseys, and even a stuffed Mickey Mouse wearing an Angels cap.

“Expensive,” Rina said.

How much would Shohei Ohtani be worth on the free-agent market? One MLB official believes the Angels star could get up to $600 million on his next contract.

April 6, 2023

The stuffed Mickey runs $40. In one of the team stores, a ball thrown by Ohtani and fouled off by Jesse Winker, then of the Seattle Mariners, is on sale for $599. A game-worn Ohtani City Connect jersey, from a game in which Ohtani hit two home runs, is on sale for $195,000.

If Ohtani leaves the Angels, Rina said, she would follow him to his new team. I asked her husband whether he would do the same.

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He smiled and turned his back toward me. He had just bought a Trout jersey.

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