The designated hitter did not exist in the National League on Dec. 5, 2017, the day the Padres met with Shohei Ohtani at Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Los Angeles. The team officials who had traveled up from San Diego still did what they could to make an impression on the most unique free agent in baseball history.
A.J. Preller recited from memory a roughly five-minute spiel in Japanese, a language the general manager otherwise hardly knew. Joining Preller in the room, among others, were owners Ron Fowler and Peter Seidler, then-manager Andy Green, Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman and several Padres employees with ties to Ohtani: Hideo Nomo, Takashi Saito, Acey Kohrogi and former Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters trainer Seiichiro Nakagaki, whom Preller had hired months earlier. The envoy presented Ohtani with a booklet printed in both English and Japanese, touting the comforts of their home city, the young talent in their farm system and a detailed proposal to use the two-way star as both a pitcher and a part-time outfielder.
Three days later, Ohtani announced he was signing with the Los Angeles Angels. Despite the mystery shrouding his motivations and San Diego’s apparent disadvantage as a National League team, the Padres likely felt as much disappointment as any of the other five clubs — the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers — that had been granted an audience with Ohtani. No GM chases a splash as doggedly as Preller, who would sign Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million deal the following February.
Now, a half-decade later, hosting Ohtani at Petco Park is a reminder of how far the franchise has come — and how challenging another pursuit could be.
The Padres surely had envisioned they would be far higher in the standings with the best player in the world in town on a picturesque Monday night. During what was conveniently marketed as a “Japanese Heritage Celebration,” an announced crowd of 45,101 watched as San Diego sailed to a 10-3 win and continued averaging a sellout per game in their jewel of a stadium. Yet the victory merely improved the home team’s record to seven games under .500 in July, an obvious red flag four weeks before the trade deadline and four months before the start of Ohtani’s widely anticipated free agency.