I'd never been a part of anything like this, 20 or so reporters chasing after an athlete into a dark parking lot illuminated only by camera lights.
Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani ducked into the passenger seat of a car and was driven away into the night. Reporters who were close to him said he told them, "Sumimasen," which can mean, "Sorry," or, "Excuse me," depending on the context.
A 23-year-old pitcher and power hitter, Ohtani made only his third pitching start of the season Tuesday night at the Sapporo Dome in front of representatives from 16 major league teams. The Dodgers had two scouts here. Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto was also in attendance.
The next morning, a couple of media outlets reported Ohtani wanted to move from Japan to Major League Baseball in the upcoming offseason. The reports cited anonymous sources.
I was told something simliar but was warned Ohtani could change his mind. It wouldn't be the first time. Ohtani was set to come to the United States out of high school, only to reverse course at the last second.
Major league teams are convinced Ohtani will be made available to them this winter, but some executives have wondered whether an agent could talk him into remaining in Japan for another two years.
If Ohtani moves to the U.S. as a 25-year-old, he would be free to sign a contract of any length or value and could theoretically make more than $200 million. If he moves before then, he would be limited to a bonus of $300,000 to $10 million and would receive only a minor league contract. (Ohtani hasn't named an agent; at least not publicly.)
By signing with an American team this winter, Ohtani would be leaving a lot of money on the table but would still make out well financially. His image is on advertisements all over Japan, and a move to the U.S. could allow him to make tens of millions of dollars annually in endorsement deals.
The Japanese reports were careful to use language that would allow them to claim they weren't wrong if Ohtani remains with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. None of the stories stated the move was certain. Rather, they said Ohtani was "solidifying his intention" to play in the major leagues next season.
Nonetheless, it was a major story here, and reporters were at the Sapporo Dome well before noon for a 6 p.m. game.
Unlike in the major leagues, reporters don't have clubhouse access in Nippon Professional Baseball. Most of the reporting occurs after teams complete their pregame practices. (Calling these sessions batting practice wouldn't adequately cover what these teams do.) Some players stop for interviews in front of the bench. Others will talk on their walk from the field to the dugout.
Reporters will also wait by the stadium's players entrance. At the Sapporo Dome, the players enter by a nice indoor reception area. There are chairs and a TV, as well as a media workroom nearby, so staking out this entrance is less painful than, say, the Seibu Dome, where you have to stand around in suffocating humidity while listening to cicadas endlessly chirp.
So, anyway, this is where I found the Fighters' beat writers when I returned Wednesday to the Sapporo Dome. They wanted to ask Ohtani about the reports he was headed to the U.S.
Ohtani didn't address them when he arrived, which meant they couldn't leave. On days after their starts, Japanese pitchers are allowed to leave early, even before the game. Two days after, they usually don't show up at all. (Ohtani is an exception because he typically is the Fighters' designated hitter two days after pitching.)
The reporters covered the game by watching it on a TV in the lobby, keeping an eye on the elevator or stairwell from which Ohtani was likely to emerge. Finally, past the midway point in the game, Ohtani came out. Only it was clear he had no intention of talking.
The chase was on.