Amid Shohei Ohtani chants, Dodgers have message for naysayers: Sorry, not sorry

Los Angeles, CA - February 03: Dodger Shohei Ohtani talks with media at DodgerFest 2024.

The latest iteration of baseball’s Evil Empire assembled under cool, cloudy skies at Chavez Ravine on Saturday, with two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, the centerpiece of the Dodgers’ $1.185-billion winter spending spree, headlining the marquee for the team’s fanfest event.

Some 25,000 blue-and-white-clad fans screamed and chanted Ohtani’s name, along with those of stars Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, two of the other high-priced baubles boosting the team’s $307.5-million payroll, the excitement and anticipation for the upcoming season clearly evident among Southern California’s faithful.

For the rest of the country and those jilted fans in Toronto, where many thought Ohtani was headed before choosing the Dodgers in mid-December? Not so much.

Just type “Dodgers ruining baseball” into a Google search bar, and with a few clicks you can practically hear the gnashing of teeth of fans ripping the Dodgers, who have reached the playoffs for 11 straight seasons but have only one World Series title to show for it, for trying to buy a championship.

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They signed baseball’s best player in Ohtani, who deferred almost all of his 10-year, $700-million deal to free up money for the Dodgers to sign Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the best free-agent pitcher on the market, to a 12-year, $325-million deal.

They traded for former Tampa Bay ace Tyler Glasnow and inked the right-hander to a five-year, $136.5-million extension. They added punch to the lineup by signing slugger Teoscar Hernández to a one-year, $23.5-million deal and depth to the rotation by inking veteran left-hander James Paxton to a one-year, $7-million deal.

The top three hitters in the lineup — Betts, Freeman and Ohtani — have four most valuable player awards between them and combined for 112 homers, 125 doubles and 304 RBIs last season.

Oh, and there’s still a chance the Dodgers could bring back three-time National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw when the veteran left-hander recovers from shoulder surgery this summer.

It’s an embarrassment of riches that would make even New York Mets owner Steve Cohen blush, to which Betts would say: Sorry, not sorry.

Dodgers star Mookie Betts fist bumps fan Andrew Ruiz, 12, at DodgerFest on Saturday.

“I don’t know what you want us to do,” the second baseman said with a shrug. “The name of the game is to win, and the front office is giving the team the best chance to win. They promised me that when I signed here, and they’ve kept their promise. That’s why I love being a Dodger.”

The Dodgers are used to having a target on their backs. They’ve won 100 games or more in five of the last six 162-game seasons and have carried one of baseball’s top five payrolls for 11 straight years, so they enter virtually every season with the expectation of winning a championship.

But that bull’s-eye is even bigger this season on the eve of spring training, which pitchers and catchers will open with their first workout in Glendale, Ariz., on Friday.

“We have to embrace it,” Betts said. “Every team that we play against, they’re going to come for the Dodgers. We have to embrace that and fight back. Nobody is going to roll over. Nobody is going to say, ‘Those guys have the best players and they’re better than us.’ They’re here to prove. They’re here to eat just like we are.”

Read more: Shaikin: The Dodgers and everyone else: A not-so-Golden State for MLB

This winter has been like an all-you-can-eat buffet for Dodgers owner Mark Walter, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Brandon Gomes, who made it clear after their 100-win team was swept by Arizona in last October’s National League Division Series series that they would spare no expense in upgrading the team.

“I talked to Andrew about a week after we lost, and he told me the direction they were gonna go forward with, that they had a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C on what we were going to try to do,” Freeman said. “And Plan A certainly happened.

“When they signed Shohei, I was like, ‘OK, that’s a lot.’ Then all of a sudden Yamamoto comes and Glasnow and the other guys, and it was, ‘Geez, it’s pretty incredible.’ You just don’t know how far they’re going to go. ... As athletes, as fans of your team, you just want to be part of something special, where they go for it every single year.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts speaks to reporters during DodgerFest at Dodger Stadium on Saturday.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts speaks to reporters during DodgerFest at Dodger Stadium on Saturday. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called the recent spending spree, which came on the heels of a relatively austere winter before the 2023 season, “staggering,” and while it doesn’t necessarily alter expectations for the Dodgers, it does heighten them.

“Yeah, I mean, Shohei didn't come here to not win a championship, and I can speak for everyone else in the organization that feels the same way,” Roberts said. “So you know, regardless of expectations, I think that we have one goal in mind.”

If the Dodgers do stack multiple championships together and become as hated as the New York Yankees, who won four World Series titles from 1996 to 2000, and the New England Patriots, who won six Super Bowl titles from 2002 to 2019, so be it.

“If people want to call us villains, that's fine,” third baseman Max Muncy said. “It doesn’t change who we are in the clubhouse. It doesn't change who we are to our fans. It doesn't change who we are in the stadium. People can think whatever they want, but we have to go out there and perform at the end of the day.”

To that end, Ohtani, who will be relegated to hitting this season while he recovers from a second Tommy John surgery last Sept. 19, has progressed from taking dry swings in December to hitting “flips” and off a tee in January.

He will begin hitting off a machine in Arizona and expects to be ready to start as the team’s designated hitter in the season-opening two-game series against the San Diego Padres in Seoul on March 20-21.

“I’m very confident because we’re right on schedule,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “We’re not ahead, we’re not behind. We’re right on schedule. As long as there are no setbacks going forward, I’ll be ready.”

Gavin Lux, who sat out all of last season after tearing the two major ligaments in his right knee during a spring-training game, has resumed full baseball activities and should be ready to take over as the team’s starting shortstop this season.

“I feel like everything is good, it’s normal,” Lux said. “It took a while to get there, but we’re there. I’ve run the bases, gotten out of the box, taken ground balls, checked off everything we need to play in a game. As long as there are no setbacks leading up to it, the plan is day one, full-go.”

Veteran reliever Blake Treinen, who was limited by a sore shoulder to five games in 2022 and sat out all of 2023 after undergoing surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff, has been throwing bullpen sessions and is expecting to return this season. Treinen went 6-5 with a 1.99 ERA in 72 games as the team’s setup man in 2021.

Read more: Hernández: Dodgers' pitch made them offseason winners. Is it enough to win in October?

“I feel amazing,” Treinen, 35, said. “It’s been a blessing having a full, healthy offseason. It’s probably the best I’ve felt in spring for a while. I’m just looking forward to getting going in spring training and getting the competitiveness going again.”

So are the rest of the Dodgers, who were the talk of the baseball world this winter and will be again all summer and — they hope — all fall.

“I think it’s a tremendous honor and responsibility,” Roberts said. “I’ve said it before. The Dodgers and Los Angeles are going to be the epicenter of sports and baseball for the summer. It is. We are. And I think that’s great for our game. It’s great for the city, and it raises the bar for all of us.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.