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Hernández: Shohei Ohtani's personality will help him fit into Dodgers' clubhouse

Shohei Ohtani at Dodgers' training camp on Feb. 14, 2024, in Phoenix.

Where’s Charlie?

The question from Shohei Ohtani caught Freddie Freeman by surprise.

Freeman had introduced his then-5-year-old son to Ohtani at the All-Star Game in Los Angeles in 2022.

Now here they were, back at Dodger Stadium 17 months later as part of a contingent of players enlisted to recruit Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Ohtani was asking Freeman about his son by name.

Ohtani has continued asking about Charlie in camp.

“Every single day, ‘Where’s Charlie?’ ” Freeman said.

Freeman will have his son accompany him to the team’s spring training facility on Saturday.

Read more: Despite superstar additions, Dodgers still feeling ‘sting’ of last year’s NLDS sweep

“Shohei might get tired of Charlie because Charlie is going to be attached to his hip,” Freeman said with a laugh.

Ohtani is still an English learner, but just two words from him — Where’s Charlie? — had a noticeably softening effect on Freeman.

“For someone to remember your son’s name after meeting them two years prior and wanting to meet him, I think that’s what makes Shohei Shohei,” Freeman said. “He’s not just a great baseball player, he’s great off the field and he’s just a great person.”

In most instances, concerns about chemistry are overblown, as the alchemy of Player X liking Player Y serves as a convenient substitute for the actual, and infinitely more complicated, reasons for why a team succeeds or fails. In the case of these Dodgers, however, team dynamics could be critical.

The Dodgers already had such signature players as Freeman and Mookie Betts, but Ohtani is of another universe. Ohtani is a celebrity.

As the most popular player in the game who just joined the sport’s most glamorous team, Ohtani figures to be baseball’s most scrutinized player since Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s career home run record in 2007.

Read more: Photos: Shohei Ohtani welcomed by Dodgers fans in Phoenix

Not every player will welcome the extra attention Ohtani brings. Already, the clubhouse is overrun in the morning by reporters, leading to fewer players spending time there than in previous camps.

The imbalance in popularity between Ohtani and everyone else could also be a source of resentment.

But a player’s likability can affect how others perceive these inconveniences, and Ohtani is said to be extremely likable. He smiles often and can laugh at himself. Players might be more accepting of dressing in a crowded locker room or answering questions on behalf of a player who speaks infrequently if the responsible party is someone like Ohtani than, say, the notoriously churlish Bonds.

“People gravitate towards him,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

Roberts played with Bonds on the San Francisco Giants for two seasons, and though he wasn’t speaking about Bonds specifically, he explained how the personality of a superstar can affect an environment.

“I think some superstars, you have that walking-on-eggshells [feeling],” Roberts said. “With Shohei, I know that’s what he would not want. He wants to be like everyone else and just help us win a championship.”

However much Ohtani wants to be like everyone else, he isn’t.

As Roberts addressed his players in the clubhouse on Wednesday, fans were already pressed against the chain-linked fences that ran alongside the dirt pathway linking the indoor batting cages and practice fields. Baseball cards and Sharpies were held out. Camera phones were raised. A small boy was on his father’s shoulders.

The fans called out Freeman’s name as he walked down the human gauntlet. They did the same for Betts.

Christian Bujand, 10, is one of many fans hoping for an autograph from Dodgers star Shoehei Ohtani on Wednesday in Phoenix.
Christian Bujand, 10, is one of many fans hoping for an autograph from Dodgers star Shoehei Ohtani on Wednesday in Phoenix. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Minutes later, Ohtani jogged down the path trailed by interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. Chaos ensued. Some people screamed his name. Others just screamed. A Japanese television broadcaster narrated the scene to his viewer: “Ohtani has come out to the field!”

The crowd quickly dispersed, with fans and Japanese reporters sprinting toward a neighboring field where the team was assembling.

Ohtani bumped knuckles with fellow newcomer Teoscar Hernández. Ohtani and Hernández met at the 2021 All-Star Game, when Ohtani was playing for the Angels and Hernández the Toronto Blue Jays.

When Hernández was playing for the Seattle Mariners last year, Ohtani struck him with a pitch, and Ohtani seemed to appreciate that Hernández didn’t make a big deal out of it.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose,” Hernández said Wednesday in Spanish.

Over the course of the workout, Hernández said he and Ohtani talked about how they prepare for games and the Dodgers’ loaded roster. They compared bats.

“Ohtani is a very likable person,” Hernández said. “He’s very friendly. He likes to make friends. I’m the same way, so I like spending time with him and getting to know him better.”

Ohtani stretched with his teammates, and laughed when one of them pointed out that he was wearing the traditional Dodgers cap with the interlocking L and A instead of the spring training hat with a D as the coaching staff had asked. Earlier this week, Ohtani and Yamamoto joined the Dodgers’ teamwide group chat, according to shortstop Miguel Rojas.

Freeman and Betts were taking batting practice when Ohtani prepared to hit on an adjacent field. The crowd that was watching Freeman and Betts quickly relocated to the field Ohtani was on and watched him hit 10 home runs, including five on successive swings.

Whatever the players and coaches feel about Ohtani being the focal point of camp hasn’t diminished their admiration for his ability and how diligently he works.

“I think as far as talent, Barry [Bonds] was the most talented player I’ve ever played with,” Roberts said. “Shohei probably has a chance to be the most talented player to ever play the game of baseball. So I’m eager to get to know him more, to watch him on a day-to-day [basis],”

Roberts made another comparison between Ohtani and Bonds.

Similar to Ohtani, Roberts said, “Barry was very intentional about his work. Everything was done with a purpose.”

Roberts continued, “The thing about Shohei I’m really excited about is, all he talks about is winning. Speaking for everyone in the clubhouse, when you get a player like that and his only goal is to win a championship, that resonates with everyone.”

Ohtani might not ever hit 73 home runs in a season the way Bonds once did, but he might be able to do what Bonds never could. He might be able to walk the delicate line between being a transcendent star and popular teammate.

By the sounds of it, he has the right personality.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.