LA Dodgers' 2024 hype hits fever pitch as team takes field for first spring training games

PHOENIX — You enter the Dodgers clubhouse and the only thing missing is a red carpet and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Everywhere you turn, there are All-Stars. There are MVPs. There are future Hall of Famers. And there are living, breathing legends.

There are days this spring when there have been nearly twice as many reporters and camera crews as players.

When players walk onto the field at their Camelback Ranch spring-training complex, thousands of fans are waiting to take pictures, asking for autographs, or simply shrieking once they get a glimpse of their favorite player.

It is Showtime in spikes.

“It’s something, isn’t it?’’ said Lon Rosen, Dodgers executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “We’ve always had stars here. We’ve always had a buzz.’’

Rosen looked around, smiled and said, “Just nothing quite like this.’’

Shohei Ohtani has made the Dodgers the epicenter of the baseball universe.

Ohtani is not expected to make his spring-training debut for another week, and Japanese pitching star Yoshinobu Yamamoto won’t make his first start for another four days, but the Dodgers’ spring training home opener Friday afternoon against the San Diego Padres is expected to be a sellout.

The Dodgers’ popularity is so immense that 82% of the tickets sold for this game are from out-of-state visitors.

Just wait until the regular season when the Dodgers might sell 4 million tickets for the first time in franchise history, despite playing one fewer home game at Dodger Stadium because of their two-game series in South Korea on March 20-21.

“There’s such a big focus on Shohei,’’ Rosen said. “He’s a national treasure in Japan, and he’s a huge, huge hero to the U.S. fans. And he’s a good guy.

“You just see the amount of media attention he gets. It’s like going to a movie premier with all of the reporters and photographers. And he handles it so well. He can focus with all of this noise around him.’’’

The Dodgers have had about 20 meetings with Japanese corporations since Ohtani signed, and every office they stepped into, there were reminders of Ohtani.

“We would go to see the chairman of these companies and they had little shrines of Shohei,’’ Rosen said. “They had pictures. They had autograph balls. He’s a very, very special personality in Japan, and beloved here as well.’’

The Dodgers, spending $700 million of their $1.2 billion in expenditures this winter on Ohtani, have created the most hype around a team entering spring training since the New York Yankees’ dynasty a quarter-century ago.

And it only skyrocketed Thursday after the Dodgers routed the Padres, 14-1, in their Cactus League game at the Peoria Sports Complex.

The Dodgers scored eight runs in the first inning against co-ace Joe Musgrove and two other Padres pitchers. It took 25 minutes before the Dodgers even made the second out of the inning.

The partisan crowd of 8,677, which broke into a “Let’s Go Dodgers’’ chant just nine minutes into the game, expect the same onslaught to continue for the next six months en route to their first World Series parade since 1988.

“That was a lot of fun,’’ said former MVP Mookie Betts, who will move permanently to second base this season. “But I mean, it’s a spring training game. If we didn’t score, it would have been another story. It’s cool, but these games don’t really matter. We just need to prepare ourselves and get ready for Korea.’’

Mookie Betts and the Los Angeles Dodgers had a field day in their first spring training game.
Mookie Betts and the Los Angeles Dodgers had a field day in their first spring training game.

Still, the Dodgers provided a glimpse of what could be in store for the rest of their season, knowing that wherever they go, whoever they play, they will be the star attraction.

It resurrects the days of the Lakers dynasty with the likes of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and company, says Rosen, Johnson’s agent since 1987 and the Lakers’ former director of promotions.

“Those guys were rock stars traveling around the country,’’ Rosen said. “It’s great to have that attention. Really, it’s great for the game of baseball. You always want to have great stars.

“It’s just great to see how these guys are handling it, too. It doesn’t take away what they do on the field. That’s what the great athletes do. They don’t let anything distract them.

“Tom Brady, no matter what went around, he was always great. (Patrick) Mahomes. All of the stuff going around Mahomes before the Super Bowl, and he was amazing. There’s a calmness around these great athletes."

There hasn’t been a single Dodgers player who has even hinted about Ohtani’s presence creating a distraction. Even when Ohtani hit his first batting practice home run off pitcher J.P. Feyereisen, and he found himself surrounded by reporters in the clubhouse, Feyereisen could only laugh.

“I think as an organization we really planned for this as trying to build an infrastructure for people to support him and Yoshinobu,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I think our players, they’ve been in this market, they understand the expectation, the demands.

“It’s great in the sense that Shohei chose to be here. We’re kind of learning each other as we go, but just seeing the joy, the smiles, the laugh, he’s pretty comfortable here and knows that we’ve got a long-term commitment to each other.

“Really, this is as good as we could have hoped.’’

For a few minutes Thursday morning, however, the Dodgers could have brought Japan to a standstill. Yamamoto was scheduled to face Ohtani for the first time in batting practice. Yet, the duel never happened.

Instead, there were about 1,000 fans, the entire Dodgers’ front office, and about 50 reporters watching Yamamoto throw two innings, dominating the likes of Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Miguel Vargas. He’s in line to pitch one of the first two games in Korea.

“I don’t think that’s official yet,’’ Yamamoto said, “but if I throw during that series, it would be such an honor.’’

The potential of an Ohtani-Yamamoto matchup nearly overshadowed shortstop Gavin Lux’s comeback story. He appeared in his first game in 360 days, playing on the same field in which he suffered a torn ACL, ending his season.

“It just felt good to run around and be a baseball player again,’’ Lux said, “especially coming back here where I literally blew it out. It’s just fun to get some at-bats and feel normal again, do what you grew up doing."

When Lux left the game after three at-bats, he was greeted by San Diego Padres All-Star third baseman Manny Machado, who hugged him and welcomed him back. Machado, who has suffered two season-ending knee surgeries, empathizes with Lux.

“It was a long year,’’ Lux said, “so being a baseball player again is just the best thing I can ask for.’’

Now, he just has to get accustomed to being one of the backup singers for the stars on stage, just like the rest of his teammates.

“You get used to it fast, especially with Shohei and Yamo,’’ Lux said. “They’re like rock stars. I think we all expected that was going to happen. But it doesn’t distract us at all from our daily jobs.

“Really, it’s pretty cool to see, for all of us.’’

The Dodgers, the first team to win a baseball game in the 2024 season, now just hope to be the last team to win a game that counts eight months from now.

Let the hysteria begin.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LA Dodgers 2024 hype hits fever pitch with first spring training games