Any day now, it could be "Shotime" — as baseball dynamo Shohei Ohtani is known — in Toronto.
The world of major league baseball has lurched to an anxious standstill this week as Ohtani, the 29-year-old Japanese designated hitter and pitcher and currently the sport's most-desired free agent, will choose where he lands next.
The dramatic Ohtani sweepstakes — which are shrouded in secrecy, much like the player himself — have reportedly included pitches by his incumbent team, the Los Angeles Angels, as well as the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants.
But the Toronto Blue Jays have emerged as a serious contender after the athlete reportedly met with the team's front office on Monday. It's a seismic development for excited Jays fans during this year's unusually quiet annual winter meetings in Nashville, when teams convene to conduct business and make off-season trades.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime player," Julia Kreutz, a reporter with MLB.com, told CBC News. "I don't think we have ever seen anyone like Shohei Ohtani."
Ohtani is an unusually skilled player, being both a tremendous hitter and starting pitcher, Kreutz said. He was dubbed the "Babe Ruth of Japan" early in his career, and finished the 2023 season with 44 home runs and a batting average over .300.
Ohtani bats against the Blue Jays in Toronto in July. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Toronto's team is "pretty heavily in the mix" to win Ohtani over, Kreutz said. "The Blue Jays are mentioned in pretty much every report that has Shohei Ohtani's name in it right now.... It is reason to be optimistic."
The team, backed by corporate sponsor Rogers, also has the "financial flexibility" to strike a deal, Kreutz added.
That the Jays' starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi went to the same high school as Ohtani could be another selling point.
"They also have pretty much an entire country to themselves, and that might be appealing for a guy like Ohtani who is looking for opportunities off the field as well as on the field," Kreutz said.
"It's going to be the first domino, if you will, in an off-season that is filled with good free agency."
Tracking flights, Instagram activity for clues
Ohtani was reportedly given a tour of the Blue Jay's $100 million US training facility in Dunedin, Fla., part of a larger investment by corporate sponsor Rogers that includes a $300-million renovation of the Rogers Centre. He's met with other clubs, too.
But Dodgers manager Dave Roberts broke a sacred rule in revealing to media that the team met with Ohtani — a leak that could take the Dodgers out of the running, per the strict standards set by Ohtani's agent, Nez Balelo.
Ohtani returns to the dugout after being struck out against the Blue Jays in July. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
A deal to snag Ohtani could be historic, somewhere in the ballpark between $500 and $600 million US over a 10- to 12-year period. It would likely eclipse previous megawatt deals signed by players Aaron Judge and Mike Trout.
Both sports media and some enterprising fans have done everything they can to read between the lines.
Josh Kogon, a Jays fan from Bedford, N.S., posted on social media that private flights tracked between Anaheim, Calif., where the Angels play, and Clearwater, Fla., the closest airport to the Blue Jays' training facility, could be evidence that Ohtani met with the Toronto club.
"There was only one private jet that left the Anaheim, Orange County, area and went to Dunedin and the timelines matched up perfectly," Kogon told CBC News.
A lifelong Jays fan, Kogon said "it would blow my mind" if Ohtani went to Toronto.
"This guy's a unicorn," he said, referencing the player's abilities both at bat and as a pitcher. "I'm known to say if baseball fans spent all of their time talking about Shohei Ohtani, he still wouldn't be talked about enough."
Still others are speculating over Ohtani's Instagram activity (why did he follow Giants pitcher Logan Webb?), and pondering the early week whereabouts of Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, who mysteriously switched his media availability in Nashville to a last-minute Zoom call from an unknown location.
The free agent, who is expected to make his decision by the end of the week, won't pitch in 2024 after undergoing elbow surgery for a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).
"Certainly everybody hopes and expects that he could be the same pitcher that he was before surgery, but it's an unknown at this point," said Jeff Fletcher, the author of Sho-Time: The Inside Story of Shohei Ohtani and the Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played.
"There's still not that many players who have had this kind of surgery twice and come back and had long, successful careers, so it remains to be seen how good he'll be."
That hasn't seemed to dim the Blue Jays' desire to sign Ohtani, who could be a pick-me-up after the team's unhappy end to the post-season during its wild-card series against the Minnesota Twins in October. They haven't won a playoff game since October 2016.