Sho-time at last as Ohtani delights in Dodgers home debut

A mural showing <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Los Angeles Dodgers;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Los Angeles Dodgers</a> Japanese star <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Shohei Ohtani;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Shohei Ohtani</a> is Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, California; the mural, by artist Robert Vargas, is 150 feet (46 meters) tall and is titled "LA Rising." (Robyn Beck)

After flying 5,477 miles from Tokyo to Los Angeles to see Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani make his regular season home debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hiroaki Miyazaki had one request.

"I hope Ohtani can give us a home run," the 71-year-old told AFP on Thursday as the Ohtani era at Dodger Stadium got under way with a regular-season home opener against the St. Louis Cardinals.

In the event, Ohtani was unable to add a 172nd homer to the 171 he accumulated during six seasons with the Dodgers' southern California rivals, the Los Angeles Angels.

But the 29-year-old, two-time American League Most Valuable Player who has earned comparisons to Babe Ruth did enough in a 7-1 victory to suggest that the $700 million the Dodgers splashed out to secure his services will be money well spent.

A palpable sense of excitement rippled throughout Dodger Stadium hours before the first pitch as fans streamed into the iconic venue against a picture-perfect California backdrop of swaying palm trees and blue skies.

In one of the several mega-stores inside the stadium, long lines of fans queued patiently to pay for Ohtani-themed merchandise ranging from replica jerseys at $199 each to commemorative pennants and caps.

"We bought our season tickets today because of him," said Takeshi Kitada, a Los Angeles-based banker originally from Tokyo who believes the Dodgers paid a "reasonable price" to land Ohtani.

"It's a very a reasonable price -- just look at all the people here today purchasing the merchandise. The Dodgers can enjoy him."

Kitada was a regular visitor to Anaheim during Ohtani's stint with the Angels. "Now we support the Dodgers," Kitada said with a smile.

Dodgers fan Ronald Nazario is convinced Ohtani will lead the Dodgers back to the World Series.

"We've been waiting for him since day one, since we acquired him," Nazario told AFP. "We're ready for him to take off and win the next World Series, bring it back here to LA."

- 'A special team' -

Gene Weisberg, a 69-year-old attorney and long-time Dodgers fan, says seeing Ohtani turn out for the franchise is "special."

"Ohtani is an exciting player. Getting to see him every day is special. We've been season ticket holders for a very long time, so we've seen a lot of generations of players," Weisberg told AFP.

"They've put together a special team. I guess we'll have to see if they can perform -- injuries happen, other teams improved. But any time the baseball season starts, it's exciting."

Weisberg, meanwhile, was circumspect about the scandal which emerged around Ohtani over his interpreter's links to illegal gambling.

"Let's wait and see," he said. "I hope what he said is what actually happened. You never know."

When the action finally got under way, Ohtani wasted no time in getting into the groove.

Fans rose to their feet in applause as the 6-foot-5 (1.95m) slugger walked up to the plate for his first at bat, and he duly returned the compliment by smashing a double deep into right field for his first hit at Dodger Stadium.

There was a slight sense of anti-climax as he ended up out at third base after a mix-up with Mookie Betts, but that was soon forgotten as the Dodgers' powerful offense took control.

Ohtani's first run came in the bottom of the third inning after first baseman Freddie Freeman swatted a 409-foot homer to centerfield.

"Ohtani is a beast, he has a mindset," Dodgers fan Jesus Briceno told AFP. "He's ready to play."