Inside Shohei Ohtani's $700 million contract with Dodgers

How Kobe Bryant helped the Dodgers land Shohei Ohtani (1:39)

Jeff Passan reveals the Dodgers played a 2017 video of Kobe Bryant recruiting Shohei Ohtani to the team as part of their meeting with the two-way superstar. (1:39)

LOS ANGELES -- For six years, the video remained a secret, squirreled away for the next time. In 2017, during their failed courtship of Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Dodgers held onto the minute-or-so-long clip as part of their closing pitch, one they never got to give. Two weeks ago, the next time arrived, and the Dodgers weren't leaving anything to chance.

For more than a decade they had chased Ohtani, flattered him, pined for him, only to be denied. In 2012, they wanted him to be the first elite Japanese high schooler to skip Nippon Professional Baseball and sign with an MLB organization. At the last minute, he declined. Five years later, a 23-year-old, Ohtani arrived in the major leagues with the temerity to think he could hit and pitch and do both full time. As much as the Dodgers tried to build their team around him -- he could play the outfield and pitch every sixth day -- the National League did not have a full-time designated hitter. Ohtani believed DHing was a necessity for his body to withstand the rigors of what he was going to attempt. No matter how compelling the Dodgers' presentation, how ideal the fit, it wouldn't happen. He signed with the Los Angeles Angels, just 30 miles down the road. He didn't play a single postseason game in his six years there.

This time was different. Every team has a DH. And the Dodgers offered so much more, from the 10 division titles in 11 seasons, to the farm system that churned out major leaguers on the regular, to the robust analytical group that dispenses wisdom to players. Plus, of course, the video -- which, in the grand scheme, wasn't a whole lot, taking up a fraction of the three hours Ohtani spent with the team's upper management at Dodger Stadium on Dec. 1. But in that sliver of time, on the screen for Ohtani was a figure long associated with Los Angeles sports excellence making the case for him to sign with the Dodgers.

Kobe Bryant.

Back in 2017, Bryant had filmed the clip as a favor to the team. Now, more than three years after his death in a helicopter crash, Bryant's reputation as the ultimate competitor spans all sports, and his message to Ohtani registered the same posthumously in 2023 as it would have then: There's no better place in the world to win than Los Angeles, and there's no better team in baseball to win with than the Dodgers.

"That was one of the highlights of the whole meeting," Ohtani told ESPN through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. "I was really surprised to see it. It was a strong and touching message."

When Bryant said Ohtani's name, it took him aback. They never met, but Ohtani marveled at Bryant's commitment, to his craft, to his sport, to his team. Mizuhara, who is as much adviser to Ohtani as the conduit for his words, grew up in Los Angeles and understood what it meant for Bryant to vouch for the Dodgers. A minute of his time, of the presence he still casts, felt like a wonderful eternity.

This was the Dodgers' best pitch -- the equivalent of Ohtani's sweeper to Mike Trout that ended the World Baseball Classic -- and it suggested that even if 2012 and 2017 weren't the time for Ohtani and the Dodgers, now was. Now was when he could build a legacy beyond the two American League Most Valuable Player awards and his reputation as the most talented player ever into something even better: championship rings.

What came after the Dodgers' presentation -- the speculation, the false reports, the flight tracking, the $700 million contract and the details that made it even more compelling -- were all part of a six-week-long free agent journey that actually began more than a decade earlier, in Mizusawa, Japan, when a teenaged Ohtani charted the course for his baseball life.

The beginning of the final stage -- the one in which the fullness of Ohtani's legend will reveal itself -- came Thursday when he stepped onstage at Dodger Stadium in front of nearly 300 media members and was introduced with a No. 17 jersey. Minutes later, the Dodgers proved they weren't willing to let a single moment of his tenure there go to waste, not like in Anaheim: News broke that they had a trade in place for Tyler Glasnow, a potential ace to fill the top of their patchwork rotation, as they wait for Ohtani to rehab the elbow injury that led to his second surgery this fall.

Not much of this went according to plan, or to the Dodgers' usual way of doing business. But if any player can turn baseball convention on its head, it's Shohei Ohtani.

ANDREW FRIEDMAN'S NINE-YEAR reign atop the Dodgers' baseball operations department has featured a notable, and at times limiting, degree of pragmatism. Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Trevor Bauer -- the latter of whom signed for only three years and was ultimately suspended 194 games under the league's domestic violence policy -- were the only players given nine-figure contracts under his watch. The Dodgers' resources are vast, but Friedman rarely splurges in free agency.

Ohtani presented an entirely different calculus. For the Dodgers, he was more than a player. Ohtani was an icon, a brand, an economy unto himself -- a conduit to an entire country that reveres him, an adopted country increasingly smitten by him and a world that would associate him with their logo and colors. And beyond all of that -- the money he could bring, the championships he could win -- would be the selfish pleasure of getting to watch the most talented player in baseball history up close every day. So of course they need to go after him, Friedman told the Dodgers' front office during meetings in October, in the aftermath of a crushing NL Division Series sweep at the hands of an underdog Arizona Diamondbacks team. There was no bad structure on a potential contract, no limit on what they would consider. As long as it fell within the bounds of the rules, Friedman said, "the answer is yes."

The Dodgers' admiration for Ohtani dates more than a decade, years before Friedman ran their front office. Ohtani was a wiry, 6-foot-4 teenager who threw 99 mph and sent baseballs over fences with stunning regularity. The industry saw him as a bona fide pitching prodigy whose bat would be overwhelmed by better pitching, but Ned Colletti, the Dodgers' general manager from 2005 to 2014, remembers his scouts raving about Ohtani's offensive potential.

If not for the Nippon-Ham Fighters' insistence on giving Ohtani every opportunity to attempt a two-way role, many in Japan believe he would have been a Dodger in 2012. If not for the lack of a universal DH, many in the organization believe he would have been a Dodger in 2017.

To make him a Dodger in 2023, the groundwork needed to be laid a year prior.

The Dodgers were coming off a disappointing, early October exit at the hands of the division-rival San Diego Padres in fall 2022 and faced a glaring hole at shortstop. A historic class presented itself at the position, highlighted by Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa and Dansby Swanson. The Dodgers basically ignored it, opting to solve the position internally by shifting young infielder Gavin Lux.

They non-tendered Cody Bellinger, their 27-year-old 2019 MVP, and went frugal in free agency, never so much as engaging with Aaron Judge on the heels of his 62 home run season. Seven major league players were signed: Clayton Kershaw, J.D. Martinez, Noah Syndergaard, David Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, Shelby Miller and Alex Reyes. None received more than one guaranteed year. In total, they spent $53.3 million. And while they failed in their desire to dip back under the luxury tax threshold to reset the accompanying penalties, the Dodgers remained nimble for the future, with only Freeman and Betts under contract beyond 2025.

Though the Dodgers never said it themselves, executives and agents throughout the sport -- and fans trying to speak dreams into existence -- all began to believe the same thing: The Dodgers, owned by Guggenheim CEO Mark Walter and fellow billionaire partners, were clearing room to offer Ohtani the largest deal in baseball history.

"In my career, there was never a stronger interest by a franchise I worked with with a particular player than there was with him," said Colletti, who now serves as an analyst for the Dodgers' television network. "I was in the game 40 years, so it goes back quite a while. We were always involved in Latin America, we were always involved in Asia, and as you think about the players, the international signs, I can't recall any player -- any player -- that had our attention as much as he did."

THE DODGERS MET with Ohtani on the first afternoon of December, canceling stadium tours and closing their team store to do so in secrecy. They took the opportunity to highlight their organization's synergy: the marriage of their scouting and analytics departments, how information flows through to their coaches and their trainers, how communication keeps the entire organization in lockstep, immune from the turnover that confronts them every offseason.

Ohtani responded well, but the Dodgers ended the afternoon unsure how they'd line up among the other contenders. Ohtani met Giants officials at their ballpark the following day and reportedly traveled to visit the Blue Jays' spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, two days later. His inclinations were unknown.

"He has a very good poker face," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said during his media session at last week's winter meetings. "I think he was smiling inside."

So much about Ohtani's proclivities remain a mystery to the general public and, to some extent, even those who shared a clubhouse with him. But his desire to perform at his sport's grandest stage and accumulate championships has long been obvious to those around him. One longtime Angels staffer described it as "almost Kobe-like." Ohtani won the Japan Series with the Fighters in 2016 and has longed to replicate that in the World Series, a yearning that only grew with every disappointing season in Orange County.

Ohtani's performance during Japan's title-winning march through the WBC -- the uplifting pregame speech; the clinching strikeout; the raw, uncharacteristic displays of emotion throughout -- served as the ultimate validation for those who watched him closely in recent years.

The question of how that desire would impact his free agency was answered by the structure of his potential contract. The Dodgers proposed multiple iterations of deals working up toward where they believed Ohtani's would wind up: somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million guaranteed, nearly $175 million larger than Trout's deal with the Angels. As the total guarantee increased, the Dodgers proposed different structures that would allow them payroll flexibility, including the possibility of deferred money, like in Betts' and Freeman's deals.

One week ago, after meetings with prospective teams had concluded, Ohtani and his CAA agent, Nez Balelo, returned to Friedman with a contract structure unlike any ever seen in professional sports: 10 years, $700 million -- but with $680 million deferred, interest-free, in the 10 years that follow the expiration of the deal, taking the competitive balance tax (CBT) hit from $70 million a year to just $46 million.

"I wouldn't have had the guts to propose it," Friedman said.

Said Ohtani, through his interpreter: "I was looking into it, did some calculations, and I figured if I can defer as much money as I can, if that's going to help the CBT, it's going to help the Dodgers to be able to sign other players and make a better team. I felt like that was worth it."

The structure triggered a quick approval from the Dodgers. Unbeknownst to them, Balelo then proposed the same deal to at least three other teams. The San Francisco Giants and Toronto Blue Jays agreed to the terms. The Angels, Ohtani's original major league team, were also given a chance, but sources said they ultimately declined.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, came away from their Friday morning conversation believing they were in good standing. Then, about 30 minutes later, social media left them wondering whether their third time pursuing Ohtani wasn't the charm after all.

IT BEGAN LATE Thursday night, when an X account found a private jet that was scheduled to fly from Orange County to Toronto on Friday, prompting thoughts that Ohtani might be on it. A few minutes before 11 a.m. PT, a popular Dodgers fan site posted a report stating that Ohtani "is signing with the Toronto Blue Jays." It was the most dramatic twist in what had been a monthlong emotional roller coaster for Friedman and his front-office lieutenants.

"You know those crazy games where there's late lead changes, and they graph it like that?" Friedman said after Ohtani's news conference. "I think that's a little bit of my range of emotions. There's times when I felt more confident, there's times when I was down extremely low. It definitely took some time off my life."

While speculation ran rampant, Ohtani sat at his Southern California home playing with his puppy, which had become famous during a recent appearance on MLB Network. (His name, Ohtani revealed Thursday, is Decoy, short for the Japanese word dekopin, which means a finger-flick to the forehead.) A follow-up report stating that Ohtani was indeed aboard a Toronto-bound flight was eventually debunked -- but not before it caused a frenzy on social media, with fans following flight tracker sites for minute-by-minute updates. The world learned the passenger's true identity around 6 p.m. ET, when a photographer for the Canadian Broadcast Corp. dispatched to the tarmac at Pearson Airport in Toronto captured none other than businessman and "Shark Tank" panelist Robert Herjavec.

At that point, Ohtani still hadn't made his decision. Late Friday, he finally did.

"There's not really one reason," Ohtani said Thursday. "There's a lot of reasons. I met with a few teams throughout the negotiation process. Honestly, every team I met with and had a chance to talk to, they were all great. It was really, really a tough decision for me. But at the end of the day, I had to choose one team. And the Dodgers were my pick."

Friedman learned of the decision around 12 p.m. PT on Saturday while attending his son's soccer game and hosting a Zoom call with a free agent he was trying to recruit. The call from Balelo came near the tail end of it, and Friedman abruptly jumped off.

He was told Ohtani had chosen the Dodgers and that it would soon be announced through social media.

No more than five minutes later, the Dodgers' logo graced Ohtani's Instagram page.

In the end, despite speculation to the contrary, location "did not come into play," Balelo said Thursday. Getting to $700 million, a number no athlete had ever reached within the confines of his or her sport, "was not a goal."

If there was one key driver in Ohtani's decision, it was winning.

"I want to win championships," Ohtani said. "When people look back at the championships I won, I want people to think that I was a core member and I was a big part of that championship-winning team."

TEN MONTHS AGO, Andrew Friedman traveled halfway around the world to watch Samurai Japan, the national team captained by Ohtani, train for the WBC. Tens of thousands of fans showed up in Miyazaki wearing a panoply of different hats -- Yankees and Padres and Mariners and Red Sox and Rangers and Dodgers. In Friedman's head, he envisioned something different: a sea of blue, all interlocking Ls and As, the natural conclusion to the trailblazing in Japan the Dodgers started 30 years ago with Hideo Nomo.

"One of our goals is to have baseball fans in Japan convert to Dodger Blue," Friedman said as part of his opening remarks at Ohtani's introductory news conference. "And to have Shohei, along with the rest of his teammates, help grow the game and passion for Dodgers baseball all across Japan."

When his elbow heals and he's back to hitting and pitching, the full power of Ohtani once again will reveal itself. But his aura is so immense, his pull practically gravitational, that even in the meantime, him just being a Dodger goes far. In the same way that the Los Angeles front office dreamed of watching him on a daily basis, players see being his teammate as a selling point. In perhaps his first official duty as a Dodger, Ohtani joined Freeman, starting pitcher Bobby Miller and catcher Will Smith in a recruiting meeting with Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Ohtani's Samurai Japan teammate and the second-best free agent in this year's class.

Less than 24 hours after Ohtani's official introduction as a Dodger, the team reaped the benefits of some of the financial flexibility his deal allowed. On Friday morning, the Dodgers finalized a five-year, $135 million contract extension with Glasnow, the 6-8 right-hander whom they're acquiring from Tampa Bay. Suddenly a starting rotation with question marks looks plenty better, and a trade that in recent weeks had been bandied about finds itself pushed across the finish line.

On Thursday, Ohtani spoke of his contract through the lens of winning, happily forgoing cash now -- his $40 million-plus per year in off-field revenue more than covers what he's giving up in deferred money -- so the Dodgers can build a superteam around him. It's not just the quarter-billion dollars of net present value Ohtani gave up with the deferrals; it's how long the Dodgers can take to pay for them. Los Angeles doesn't need to fund deferred compensation until July 1, 2026, a point at which the organization expects to have made so much money off of Ohtani's presence that the deal essentially pays for itself.

All of that, to Ohtani, is perfectly acceptable. He gets richer. The team gets richer. As long as the Dodgers remain the Dodgers -- a fact he made clear in a key-man clause that allows him to opt out of the contract if Walter sells the team or Friedman is no longer president of baseball operations -- then they will provide him everything he didn't have in Anaheim, everything he wanted back in 2012 and 2017, everything he finally gets in 2023 and beyond.

"When they look back at the last 10 years, even though they made the playoffs every single year, won only one World Series ring, they considered it a failure," Ohtani said. "And when I heard that, I knew that they were all about winning. And that's exactly how I feel."

ESPN's Ramona Shelburne contributed to this story.