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Dodgers’ Dave Roberts confirms Shohei Ohtani meeting amid secretive free agency

Dodgers' Dave Roberts confirms Shohei Ohtani meeting amid secretive free agency

NASHVILLE — Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, who woke up Tuesday with a pristine baseball legacy that included a curse-breaking stolen base and a relentlessly successful career in the dugout, did the unthinkable Tuesday afternoon. Surrounded by reporters eager for a comment on whether his team — the team seen as the favorite to land Shohei Ohtani for years, one of few teams with the money to do it, the team located mere minutes from the place Ohtani has made his home since he came to the United States from Japan — met with the two-way star, Roberts told the truth.

“I would like to be honest,” Roberts said. “So we met with Shohei, and we talked, and I think it went well.”

And just like that, the maddeningly quiet MLB winter meetings were consumed by sound and fury, because everyone at the Gaylord Opryland Resort knew that Ohtani and his agent, Nez Balelo, had made it clear to his suitors that any leaks about which teams the biggest baseball star on the planet might be meeting with would be held against them.

“Twenty-eight more managers and he’s ours!” joked a front-office member whose team never had much chance. The Dodgers, meanwhile, were not laughing much at all. When the Los Angeles Times asked Dodgers President Andrew Friedman to comment on Roberts’s comments, or on the team’s pursuit of Ohtani, he said he would not. When their general manager, Brandon Gomes, met with reporters as part of a scheduled session a few minutes later, he chose his words carefully.

“Dave made a comment; for us personally, we don’t feel comfortable going into it any further,” Gomes said, citing the loosely heeded rule against free agent tampering as the reason for his unwillingness to say anything. Asked whether he thought the breach would hurt the Dodgers’ chances of signing Ohtani, he said, “I have no idea.”

“I think this is all so personal, and, like I said, we’re not going to go into free agent world making comments,” Gomes added. “But it’s going to play out how it’s going to play out.”

How Ohtani’s free agency has played out, to this point, is a fury of speculation fueled by silence — both from teams too scared to violate the widely understood rules of Ohtani’s process and from Ohtani himself. The biggest star in the sport has not spoken publicly since he injured his elbow in August, a conspicuous drought for the most prominent baseball player in the world navigating a career-threatening injury weeks before he became the most coveted free agent anyone can remember.

Last month, after he was named the American League MVP for the second time, Ohtani skipped a scheduled conference call with reporters. When a Sports Illustrated reporter tried to learn the name of the dog Ohtani held in his arms as the award was announced on MLB Network, members of Ohtani’s team and the Angels said they could not comment. The MLB Network hosts knew better than to ask for information as personal as that.

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So for more than a month now, the entire industry has been searching for clues. On Monday, it found a few. Ohtani followed San Francisco Giants pitcher Logan Webb on Instagram, the clearest indication yet that he may be considering the Giants as a landing spot, as some had expected he might. Later in the day, Toronto Blue Jays Manager John Schneider was unavailable for his long-scheduled news conference and General Manager Ross Atkins was nowhere to be found in Nashville. A Blue Jays fan tracked down flights from Anaheim to Clearwater, Fla., near the team’s spring training home. When Schneider ambled into his rescheduled news conference Tuesday, cameras followed him closely and questions ranging from “Did you meet with Ohtani?” to “You look tan — were you in Florida to meet with Ohtani?” greeted him.

“I live in Florida, so I arrived here last night,” Schneider said. “I think who we meet with and where we meet them, we keep to ourselves.”

Schneider repeated the second part of that answer several times. Not long after, new Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell dodged similar questions about his team’s pursuit by insisting that he, specifically, had not met with Ohtani, even when someone asked if his team had instead.

“I don’t think this is my spot to talk about individual players,” Counsell said.

But the reality of the situation, whatever they say, is that no one wants to talk about this specific player. New York Yankees Manager Aaron Boone, for example, beamed and joked when a reporter asked him whether he thought Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto — who has not made similar demands for secrecy — would look good in pinstripes.

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“I think he probably would,” Boone said before offering that 25-year-old pitchers of Yamamoto’s caliber are difficult to find and that he expects to meet with him soon. Ohtani is now, as ever, something completely different. And that is why what Roberts did Tuesday, when he admitted the Dodgers hosted Ohtani at Dodger Stadium for a few hours last week, when he explained that they tried to answer Ohtani’s questions and give him a sense of who they are, was treated by his own colleagues like a disclosure of intolerable proportions.

“It’s pretty easy to have conversations with anyone if you feel comfortable in what you’re about, who you work with,” Roberts said. “We’re about people, we’re about winning, and so I think that that’s pretty easy to talk about. … There’s no hiding of the ball. It’s just kind of, ‘Here we are.’ And we really hope he feels it’s a fit.”

The trouble, of course, is that hiding the ball has been Ohtani’s approach to his free agency since long before it began — so much so that Roberts’s own general manager not only declined to comment on Ohtani but said it was wrong for anyone to do so. When it comes to Ohtani, candor qualifies as scandal. The Dodgers and their manager will now wait and wonder what his transgression might cost.

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