Chaos over cohesion: Angels’ handling of Shohei Ohtani’s injury highlights drama that follows them

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The sight of Shohei Ohtani’s empty locker at Angel Stadium on Friday night was a shock. Not just to the all the baseball fans and Ohtani Stans across the world.

But also to those with the team that walked into the clubhouse following yet another listless blowout loss that has defined the crumbling finale of this era of Angels baseball. This wasn’t something that was announced or widely communicated.

It was surprise to almost everyone. But not to Angels closer Carlos Estévez. He’s usually near his locker during the early innings, and saw the two-way superstar packing his stuff. He was let in on a massive secret that had yet to escape the red walls of the Angels clubhouse.

“I asked him, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And he told me the same that we all now know,” Estévez said. “I told him, I really respect what you do. This is really amazing to see a guy do this. Don’t change. Be the same guy.’”

It might be fair to assume that Estévez knew more than most because of their happenstance conversation. The scene on Friday night was surreal, as Angels spokespeople tried to reach Angels GM Perry Minasian and others for an explanation about the cleared locker with a packed All-Star Game duffel bag sitting in front of it. It took nearly half an hour before it was relayed that the Angels declined to comment.

Minasian pieced together the timeline as best he could on Saturday afternoon. But it did little to quell the blatantly chaotic undertones that have followed this franchise at literally every turn the past few weeks. And particularly the past 24 hours.

Ohtani got an MRI around 4 p.m. on Friday evening, Minasian said. It revealed continued inflammation in his oblique. They got those results around the first inning, and that’s when he started packing up.

His mind, Minasian said, had shifted toward getting a surgical procedure to address the UCL tear he suffered in August. But, the GM added, he planned to be at the ballpark this weekend and for the final homestand.

“There’s nothing malicious, there’s no story here,” Minasian said. “He’s so focused on, ‘The season’s over, I have to get ready for 2024.’ That was what his mindset was.”

Minasian made several comments about the great relationship that Ohtani had with the Angels and the equally great relationship that Minasian had with Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo.

But it’s also clear that Ohtani drives the bus in this relationship. He makes the decisions. For on-field matters, the results of that dynamic aren’t as noticeable or consequential. But this injury has highlighted the perils of ceding nearly full autonomy to a player.

For instance, Minasian said he didn’t know what surgical procedure Ohtani was planning on getting. And while the surgery is Ohtani’s prerogative, especially as a pending free agent, he is still an Angels employee earning $30 million this year.

Minasian also didn’t have an explanation as to why Ohtani would clear his locker despite planning to remain with the team through the end of the season.

There’s a void left because Ohtani doesn’t speak to the media, except after he pitches. It’s a policy that is uncharacteristic for any other player in the sport. But it’s also one the Angels have enforced at the request of Ohtani and his agent.

The team is reaping what it’s sown, now, as the messaging on just about anything related to Ohtani is accompanied by far more drama than necessary.

It was an uncharacteristically dreary day in Anaheim, but perfectly apt for the dark atmosphere that encircled the team. Players, one by one, were asked about their favorite Ohtani memories.

Logan O’Hoppe recalled catching Ohtani on Opening Day in Oakland. Patrick Sandoval talked about how their friendship evolved from talking baseball to discussing life. Estévez smiled when remembering their shared love of anime.

Even if no one said it out loud, it certainly felt like the concrete end of an era. A line in the sand of him being an Angel, and him not being one.

The team will pursue Ohtani in free agency. Minasian reiterated as much on Saturday. But there is no guarantee that he’ll suit up in an Angels uniform ever again. The team hasn’t put together anything resembling a winning product during his tenure. They’ll also have to outbid a slew of suitors for his highly sought-after services.

“He likes being here,” said Angels manager Phil Nevin. “He likes being around his teammates. I think it’s a place for him to be himself. It would be nice to have him here in that last week.”

It all has the feel of the end of an era. But because it’s the Angels, no feeling can ever be so simple, so binary.

Usually an oblique injury isn’t a multiday saga that runs the gamut of emotions. In a normal universe, everyone would be on the same page. The team could report the information, and then everyone regroups and moves on.

In this instance, when asked about the severity of Ohtani’s oblique injury, Minasian initially said he wouldn’t get into it. He then repeated it was just irritation.

Everything is more complicated than it needs to be. Then again, this is the same team that traded its top prospects for players it placed on waivers less than a month later. The same team that has competing diagnoses for Anthony Rendon’s injury that’s sidelined him for more than two months. The same team that has drama following it from every which way at seemingly all times.

Ohtani will be back in Anaheim for the final week of the season. He’ll put the uniform on again. And perhaps the team will do something to honor his time here, regardless of whether or not they hope to bring him back.

What he’s accomplished in the past three years is purely and simply the greatest stretch in baseball history. Unprecedented dominance in a sport where mastering just one craft is nearly impossible. Let alone what he’s done.

Ohtani’s empty locker signified something more than just the empty space occupying the cubby below his nameplate. It signified the team’s unpreparedness to handle the situation as it occurred on Friday.

And, more importantly, it represented the mystery of what’s to come, both for Ohtani and the Angels. Strip away the chaos, and it has the aura of finality.

“It’s definitely weird to see all his stuff gone,” said Sandoval, who sits next to Ohtani in the clubhouse and shares the extra locker in between them. “Yeah, just, yeah, I miss him.”

(Top photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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