Shohei Ohtani packs the house, but not for reasons he or the Dodgers expected

LOS ANGELES — Dodgers team security guard Al Garcia, by all accounts, is a friendly person. But his presence in the Los Angeles press room only added tension to an already very congested room ahead of one of the most anticipated media moments ever held in that space.

He entered with a purpose: To clear several of the reporters lined up against the walls, to get them to move back, fast. The reason why soon became clear.

Moments before the man of the hour, Shohei Ohtani, came in, a throng of Dodgers people walked through the doors to watch, manager Dave Roberts, president Stan Kasten and executive VP Lon Rosen among them. The front office, too. Teammates Kiké Hernández and Joe Kelly also took seats to watch.

“I’m happy he’s going to speak, speak to what he knows and give his thoughts on the whole situation,” Roberts had said on Sunday. “I think it’ll give us a little bit more clarity.”

In other words, the Dodgers were just as curious as everyone else as to what he would say. This is the biggest story in sports. One of the most intriguing scandals imaginable, with few concrete answers anywhere to this point. In the undersized, overcrowded Dodgers press room, there was tension and anticipation from all corners.

And then the two-way superstar sat down and opened his mouth to the public for the first time since this story broke five days ago.

“I’ve never bet on baseball or any other sports or asked someone to do it on my behalf,” Ohtani said. “I’ve never asked a bookmaker to do it on my behalf.”

“… On a personal note, I’m very sad and shocked that someone who I trusted has done this.”

Ohtani spoke for nearly 12 minutes in an otherwise silent room. He spoke slowly, and only a couple sentences at a time. His interim translator, Will Ireton, studiously took notes as Ohtani talked. Then, he’d translate what Ohtani said. All with the same underlying message: his former interpreter Ippei Mizuhara stole from him and lied to him.

Ohtani did not hold back. It was reported earlier in the morning that no questions would be taken, and none were. But that expectation led to justified speculation that Ohtani — normally evasive of media inquiries — would keep his comments brief and closed off.

That was not the case. He told his own perspective in great detail, laying out the timeline and vociferously denying any wrongdoing or knowledge of wrongdoing.

Many questions remain. And follow up questions to Ohtani will be necessary to assess the plausibility and accuracy of his assertions. But for now, Ohtani did something five days in the making: He came out and spoke, and attempted to leave no doubt about where he stood on the matter.

“Up until a couple of days ago, I didn’t know that this was happening,” Ohtani said. “… Ippei has been stealing money from my account and has told lies.”

Explosive comments. The most important thing that would happen in the ballpark all day, and for many days to come.

Still, a game was on the calendar for Monday evening. An exhibition contest between the Dodgers and Ohtani’s former team, the Angels. As Ohtani prepared to speak, starting pitcher Walker Buehler threw a live batting practice session on the stadium mound. A Los Angeles Times reporter watching it posted that he’d taken a comebacker off his leg.

In any other universe, all of that would be of significant importance to all the people in the press room. It’s been nearly 22 months since Buehler appeared in an MLB game, and finally his rehab from Tommy John has reached its culmination.

But in the alternate universe that has been established in the aftermath of this incompressible drama, that felt completely irrelevant.

Everything around Monday’s statement felt high-stakes from the start. Security guards started redirecting traffic quickly once the media parking lot started to fill just minutes after the gate opened. The line to enter the press room was long, and started forming nearly an hour before Ohtani spoke.

Cameras and producers were not allowed in to watch, forcing throngs of photographers to take pictures of Dodger Stadium television screens. Even still, when all was said and done, 73 people stood shoulder to shoulder in a room that normally holds far fewer. The Dodgers have hosted the All-Star game and postseason in the last two years. This pregame statement drew an even more sizable crowd.

It ended with a room in what felt like a state of shock. The Ohtani experience has delivered its share of drama and excitement over the years. MVP awards. Hitting and pitching in an All-Star game. Devastating injuries. And then a lot more. But this saga has already taken the cake.

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Reporters and photographers lined up to witness Ohtani’s toss session Monday. (David Crane / MediaNews Group / Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

“I’m looking forward to focusing on the season,” he said moments before getting up. “I’m glad that we had this opportunity to talk, and I’m sure there will be continuing investigations moving forward.”

He stood and walked out the same way he came in. Having given the world his perspective. Doing what he could to fill the void and temper the speculation it has created.

Then, still wearing the Dodgers hoodie and cap he’d spoken in moments prior, he walked out to the field with his glove. That’s because Monday marked the beginning of his throwing program. He tossed a ball back and forth with Brandon McDaniel, the Dodgers VP of Player Performance. It was the first time he’d toss a ball in that manner since his surgical procedure in September.

A lot has changed since then. His team, the nature of his celebrity — even the presence, reputation and standing of his interpreter and best friend. But one thing hasn’t changed: An ability to shut off the entire world to focus on baseball. Even if that world, his world, has completely shifted. And even with questions he’s yet to answer hanging over him at the outset of his Dodgers tenure, one that has already gone in a direction no one could have ever expected.

(Top photo of photographers taking pictures of Dodger Stadium television screens: Michael Owens / Getty Images)

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