LA Dodgers embrace insane expectations, 'target on our back' as spring training begins

PHOENIX — The moment the gates opened at 9 a.m. Friday, more than 100 fans poured into the Los Angeles Dodgersspring training complex, waiting to get their first glimpse at the team's newest stars.

Despite the unseasonably cold and wet conditions, fans gathered around the mud to check out Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Tyler Glasnow and the Dodgers’ pitchers and catchers for their first official workout of the year.

The crowd ballooned to more than 500 fans by late morning. Fans wore their new Ohtani jerseys. There were Yamamoto jerseys. There were Japanese headbands. Just the sight of Yamamoto had fans shrieking in excitement.

“I couldn’t wait for this day," said longtime Dodgers fan Steve Douma, 59, who was one of the first to enter the complex. “It’s a day we’ve all been waiting for. Gosh ... why even have a season? It’s my team, but they’ve got to win.

“We go to the postseason every year, but this time, we’ve got to get to the Series. Gotta go to the Series."

This team has the highest expectations of perhaps any team since the Yankees’ dynasty a quarter-century ago.

After spending $1.2 billion this winter, with a franchise-record payroll of about $310 million, the Dodgers enter the spring as baseball’s team to beat.

This is the year they are fully expected to win their first World Series championship in a full season since 1988.

The expenditures, the hype, lead to surreal and perhaps unfair expectations.

Dodgers manger Roberts knows what’s at stake, and instead of hiding from the pressure, is fully embracing it, calling the Dodgers and Los Angeles “the epicenter of sports and baseball."

“It's going to raise the bar, I think, for all of us," Roberts said. “I'd like to think everyone standing before me [about 70 reporters] are fans of this game of baseball and there's a lot more eyeballs on the Dodgers and Major League Baseball.

“I expect our players and the organization to elevate their game and I think that the responsibility with more eyeballs means the expectations greater. So, I think that that's a good thing for all of us."

Really, they’ve got no choice.

Dodgers pitcher Bobby Miller stretches during a workout at Camelback Ranch.
Dodgers pitcher Bobby Miller stretches during a workout at Camelback Ranch.

“We have to embrace it,” Dodgers second baseman Mookie Betts said at DodgerFest last weekend. “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.’"

Hey, it’s nice to have bosses who are filthy rich and are willing to use their financial muscles to build the best team money can buy.

There’s a reason why future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw decided to return for at least one more season, maybe more, after seriously contemplating retirement for the first time this past winter.

“This offseason has been pretty amazing to watch, honestly,” Kershaw said Thursday before his one-year contract with a player option became official Friday. “There’s definitely a part of me that wanted to be a part of that. Part of this team. Winning an offseason doesn’t mean anything, but it’s a pretty good clubhouse of guys. The talent is probably the best I’ve ever been a part of."

The spending created a lot of angst among opposing fans and players but a whole lot of pride inside that Dodgers’ clubhouse, which features four former MVPs in Ohtani, Betts, Kershaw and Freddie Freeman.

“We’re trying to win," Dodgers infielder Max Muncy said at DodgerFest. “We’re assembling a good team. … If people want to call us the villains, that’s fine. 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.

“We’ve got to go out there and perform.”

The Dodgers have been baseball’s greatest regular-season team the past 11 seasons, winning 10 NL West titles and averaging 99 victories in the 10 full seasons, but those first-round ousters the past two years was an absolute gut-punch.

They knew something needed to be done, and they dropped $1.2 billion hoping to find that cure.

“It’s a privilege,’’ Dodgers veteran outfielder Jason Heyward said in the quiet in front of his locker Friday morning. “People can say we have a target on our back, or whatever, but it is what it is.

“We are the Dodgers."

The Dodgers now have a lethal lineup with their top three hitters – Betts, Freeman and Ohtani – combining for 112 homers, 125 doubles and 304 RBI last season.

Roberts hasn’t decided the top of the batting order, but the fans have let it be known that they’d prefer to have Betts leading off, followed by Freeman and Ohtani.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, but the Dodgers aren’t about to apologize.

“The Texas Rangers won the World Series last year with $500 million combined between their infielders [Corey Seager and Marcus Semien]," Heyward said, “and no one complained. So no one should complain now.

“It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s a good starting point.’’

The Dodgers’ first spring training game is Feb. 22 in Phoenix.

Thre regular seasons starts March 20 in Seoul, Korea.

Their first postseason game is tentatively scheduled the first week of October.

The World Series begins in late October.

And the parade, well, could come in early November.

The mission officially began on Friday.

“We’re ready," Roberts said. “I couldn’t be more excited."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LA Dodgers embrace insane expectations as 2024 spring training begins