Book Excerpt: Inside The Recruiting Battle For Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani was the subject of an unprecedented recruiting battle because a confluence of events made him a potential superstar who every team could afford. Ohtani came along at a time when his signing bonus was limited by what teams had available in their international bonus pools. Ohtani’s process for selecting his big league team late in 2017 is examined in the following excerpt from Jeff Fletcher’s upcoming book, Sho-Time: The Inside Story of Shohei Ohtani and the Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played.
The Angels would have loved to have Mike Trout, their twenty-six-year-old superstar, sitting at the table when they met with Shohei Ohtani. However, Trout was back in New Jersey, preparing to get married at the end of the week. Instead, the Angels connected Trout via FaceTime, and he spent a few minutes selling Ohtani on how much he enjoyed playing for the Angels. Otherwise, General Manager Billy Eppler did most of the talking during their meeting, which he said lasted only about ninety minutes. Owner Arte Moreno opened the proceedings and Manager Mike Scioscia cracked a few self-deprecating jokes, which Eppler said got Ohtani to laugh. Eppler said he and his staff walked out of the meeting cautiously optimistic.
The next day, the Mariners met with Ohtani. The Mariners seemed like another of the strongest suitors among the final seven because they were in the AL, played in a city with a large Japanese population, and had a history with Ichiro. The Mariners also had the second-most money to offer among the final seven, at $1.55 million as the meetings began. The day after the Mariners met with Ohtani, they and the Angels engaged in a duel of deals with the Minnesota Twins, with each club getting an additional $1 million worth of pool space from the Twins. It jumped the Angels to $2.315 million and the Mariners to $2.55 million. A day after that, the Mariners raised the bet once more, in a trade with the Miami Marlins. The Mariners got speedy second baseman Dee Gordon and another $1 million in pool space, giving them a total slightly above the Rangers’ $3.535 million. The Mariners already had an All-Star second baseman, Robinson Cano, and they sent two of their top prospects to the Marlins for Gordon, who was owed $38 million over the rest of his contract. There was an assumption that the deal only made sense for the Mariners if they did it because that $1 million in pool space would get them Ohtani. (The Mariners conceded the Ohtani chase was part of the rationale, but they also wanted Gordon to play center field.)
While the baseball world was buzzing about the Mariners seemingly paving the way to land Ohtani, few knew that Ohtani was on his way to Anaheim, literally. Just as the Mariners were finishing the Gordon trade, Balelo had called Eppler and told him that Ohtani wanted to make the trek from the CAA offices in Los Angeles down the freeway to Anaheim to get a look at Angel Stadium. Thrilled as the Angels were to get another opportunity to sell themselves to Ohtani, there was a problem: the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles were using Angel Stadium. The Eagles had played in Seattle the previous weekend, and instead of crossing the country twice before a game against the Los Angeles Rams, they stayed on the West Coast and borrowed the Angels’ stadium for practice. Eppler was trying to keep Ohtani’s visit under wraps, and he couldn’t do that with an entire football team—along with their support staff and media—hanging around. “A six-foot-four Japanese guy is going to stand out,” Eppler said later. “Everyone knows he’s in LA. We aren’t hiding this one. We coordinated a way to get him in the stadium unseen.” Once the Eagles had left, around 5:30 p.m., Ohtani got a tour of the ballpark, which was in midwinter disarray, with construction of new scoreboards and other upgrades going on around the temporary football field. While the Angels had done much of the talking during the meeting days earlier at CAA, this time Ohtani asked more questions, Eppler said. They spent a couple hours together, and then parted ways for the night. After the meeting, Balelo called Eppler to tell him what to expect. Balelo said that he had no idea when Ohtani would make his decision. Ohtani still had two weeks left before the deadline, and Balelo said he might even go back to Japan before deciding.
The next morning was Friday, just four days after the Angels had their first face-to-face meeting with Ohtani and eleven days after they had submitted their written presentation. Eppler headed into the office with no expectations. In the car, he got a call from Balelo, who wanted to make sure that he had warned Eppler that whenever Ohtani made his decision, it was going to be announced quickly. The losing teams would probably find out from the media before hearing from Balelo. Eppler assured Balelo that he was okay with however they had to do it. A little later, after Eppler had arrived at the office, his phone rang again. It was Balelo. Eppler said he was puzzled to hear from him again so soon, but he popped into one of his assistants’ offices and closed the door to take the call.
“There’s something I forgot to tell you in our last conversation,” Balelo said, as Eppler recalled.
“It’s that Shohei Ohtani wants to be an Angel.”
“Congratulations. You got him. You reeled him in.”
Speechless for a moment, Eppler stepped backward to sit down, but the chair slid along the hardwood floor away from him, and Eppler ended up crashing to the ground. As he stumbled to his feet, Balelo got his attention through the phone: “Billy! Billy! You have to call Arte.” Balelo wanted Eppler to call Arte Moreno, the Angels owner, immediately, because they were going to send out a statement to the media any minute, and the news would spread quickly.
An email from CAA went out to selected members of the national and Los Angeles media, which prompted the news to immediately hit Twitter. That sparked a roar within the Angels offices, even before Eppler had opened the door to give the news directly. Across the country, a handful of Angels players cheered and celebrated the news as they were going to the rehearsal for Trout’s wedding.
Once the world learned that Ohtani had picked the Angels, the next question was why. In the days, weeks, and months to come, the answer to that would remain somewhat vague. Balelo’s initial statement said Ohtani had made his selection because “he felt a strong connection with the Angels and believes they can best help him reach his goals in Major League Baseball.” Balelo added: “While there has been much speculation about what would drive Shohei’s decision, what mattered to him most wasn’t market size, time zone, or league but that he felt a true bond with the Angels. He sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals.”
The next day, the Angels hosted a press conference outside Angel Stadium, attended by hundreds of fans and dozens of media members from all over Southern California and Japan. Ohtani sat on the dais, on live television, and he gave a little more information about what led him to the decision. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “With the Angels, I just felt something click. When you break it all down, there were so many factors. I just felt that I wanted to play for the Angels. It’s something I cannot describe in words.”
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The last time Ohtani had faced this type of decision was in 2012, when he had to choose between signing with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters or pursuing a career in the majors as an eighteen-year-old. At the time, he also described a “feeling” that he got from the Fighters. He connected with them, and believed they had his best interests at heart. That decision proved to be a good one, because he flourished in five years in Nippon Professional Baseball, improving his value to Major League teams.
Although few gave the Angels a chance to win the Ohtani sweepstakes when it began, in retrospect it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. The American League was clearly a better fit for Ohtani, and the Angels offered a West Coast city with a major Japanese population.
Also, there was the Eppler factor.
Eppler, at the time a forty-two-year-old who had been working in baseball since he was making $5,000 a year as a part-time scout at age twenty-four, had risen through the sport’s ranks in large part because of a willingness to listen to anyone and blend ideas from different groups. As modern baseball front offices have evolved, the majority of executives either played the game professionally or got advanced degrees in economics or statistics or business. Eppler had done neither. His playing career ended in college because of a shoulder injury, and then he began working as a financial analyst for a real estate company. His love for baseball encouraged him to start at the bottom, making a meager salary scouting while delivering flowers and living with his mother. Rising steadily for sixteen years, Eppler reached the pinnacle by getting one of thirty general manager jobs in October 2015, when the Angels hired him. Weeks after he was hired, he’d already made an impression. “Billy is super energetic,” said former Angels director of baseball operations Justin Hollander. “A really positive person. Extremely inclusive. The group in the front office is in his office all the time. He is a very easy person to like and get along with.”
That was the Eppler—personable, energetic, inclusive, open- minded—who wooed Ohtani to the Angels. After the news of Ohtani’s choice, one agent told baseball writer Ken Rosenthal: “Eppler made this happen. One hundred percent all him. He has been on Ohtani since he was in high school and I will bet he absolutely crushed the presentation. This is a credit to him.”
Eppler has since said he’s flattered by such comments, but he believes it was the Angels, not him, that sold Ohtani. “He felt there was a family-like atmosphere here,” Eppler said, “and it was something he wanted to be a part of for a lot of years to come.”
Sho-Time, by Jeff Fletcher, is available now for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or wherever you buy books. Hardcover, digital and audio versions will be released in July.
Excerpted from Sho-time: The Inside Story of Shohei Ohtani and the Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played by Jeff Fletcher, available now wherever books are sold. Copyright © 2022 Jeff Fletcher. Printed with permission of the publisher, Diversion Books. All rights reserved.