How Shohei Ohtani’s free agency decision affects Japanese media

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Everyone who gathered at the Gaylord Opryland for Major League Baseball’s winter meetings this week asked the same question over and over again: Which team is going to sign Shohei Ohtani?

For one franchise, Ohtani’s decision will define the offseason. For other prominent free agents, it will finally move their markets forward. For Taro Abe, it might change his life.

Abe, a reporter with the Japanese newspaper Chunichi Shimbun, isn’t just tasked with the around-the-clock work that comes with chronicling Ohtani’s free-agency developments. Abe and his family — his wife and 9-year-old daughter — would likely have to move from their home in Irvine if the two-way star chooses not to sign with the Dodgers or Angels.

“I talked to my boss and if Ohtani goes to Toronto or Chicago or another city, I think I’m going to move,” said Abe, who moved to the United States to cover Ohtani at the start of the 2022 season. “I’m 80%, 90% sure.”

Abe isn’t the only one. Nobuhiro Saito, a reporter with Nikkan Sports News, would move from Torrance if Ohtani signs elsewhere. Akiyuki Shiraishi, a reporter with Kyodo News, said it’s “50/50” whether he would have to move out of his Irvine home.

While Ohtani is expected to sign the richest contract in North American sports history with a franchise of his choosing, the reporters, whose jobs require them being away from home most of the year, are ready to uproot their lives without the carrot of life-changing money.

It’s another oddity surrounding Ohtani’s secretive free-agent process. Wherever Ohtani ends up, dozens of reporters will be there to chronicle the next chapter of his baseball career as they have in Anaheim.

“We need Ohtani,” Abe, 45, said. “He’s not just a baseball player. He’s a rock star. Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber. Young, old, they love him. Everybody talks about Ohtani every day.”

Shiraishi, 35, spent 10 years covering Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan before moving to the United States. He moved to Irvine in 2022 with his wife and son to focus on covering Ohtani’s every move with the Angels the last two seasons.

He said he’s started looking at apartments in Ohtani’s possible destinations — Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco among them. He suspects his family would move to the new city in March before his 6-year-old son finishes first grade.

“My company said maybe I’ll go, but it’s very costly, very expensive,” Shiraishi said. “So we have to see if it’s worth moving, or is it better to just make trips. It’s an honor to move somewhere Shohei is going. Maybe we won’t see such a great player, such a great Japanese player ever again. So it’s an honor.”

But a move to Toronto would present another obstacle: Securing a visa.

“I don’t know if I can live in Canada,” Saito said. “I’m not sure.”

Saito has spent the last six years following Ohtani. He married his wife in 2021. She and their two sons — 5 and 7 years old — live in Japan. The plan had been to move to the United States, but Ohtani signing with a team outside of Los Angeles would complicate matters.

For now, Saito will remain in the U.S. until Ohtani chooses his team before returning to Tokyo to be with his family until spring training.

“If it’s Los Angeles, they’ll definitely come here, the United States,” Saito said. “But if I move to another city like San Francisco, I have to research San Francisco. Which area is safe and not only the area but also education. Which school is good for my kids. It’s not so stressful. Just nervous. I hope it will be Los Angeles.”

Abe returned to Irvine this week with plans for his daughter Sakura’s 10th birthday next Saturday. Until then, he’ll be focused on the Ohtani sweepstakes, hoping that the two-time MVP doesn’t make his decision that day. If it’s not Los Angeles, he’ll be ready to move to a new city for the start of the regular season with his family.

“My family is comfortable in Los Angeles,” Abe said. “There’s Japanese stores. A lot of Japanese restaurants and Japanese supermarkets. My family is comfortable. So my family doesn’t want to move to another area. But, for me, I’m not stressed because I’m excited for another team, another culture.

“But I don’t think he’s going to go to Toronto. I think I’m going to stay in Los Angeles. Maybe he goes to the Giants. But that’s OK. It’s still California.”

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