Exclusive: Shohei Ohtani's agent provides inside look at historic contract negotiations

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - Nez Balelo, wearing a white T-shirt, cream-colored pants and tennis shoes, sips on his vanilla latte Friday morning, sitting relaxed in room 640 at the Newport Beach Marriott.

No more frenzied and secret recruiting trips.

No more frantic telephone calls.

No more listening to erroneous reports.

No more negotiations.

HOT STOVE UPDATES: MLB free agency: Ranking and tracking the top players available.

The most lucrative free-agent sweepstakes in sports history, culminating with Shohei Ohtani signing a 10-year, $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is finally over.

And finally, ever so slowly, after six weeks of restless nights, Balelo exhales.

Shohei Ohtani is introduced at a press conference at Dodger Stadium.

“I think there's just a sense of really big relief that it's now behind us. He knows where his home is going to be for a long, long time.’’

Ohtani 'should be praised' for deferred payments

Balelo is being widely celebrated for his historic deal, but also hears the criticism. Ohtani’s massive deferrals, paying him $2 million a year and deferring $68 million each year, lowers the overall value to $460 million, according to Major League Baseball’s valuations.

“It was just a sense of incredible accomplishment,’’ Balelo tells USA TODAY Sports in a 90-minute interview. “It’s so surreal. Just kind of taking it in, taking a deep breath, and detoxing from all of it."

Frankly, he and Ohtani couldn’t care less, and Balelo is not about to apologize for Ohtani’s burning desire to win.

“There’s no need to defend yourself on this,’’ Balelo said, “because it is the most incredible act of unselfishness and willingness to win that I’ve ever experienced in my life, or ever will. He did not care at all about the present value inflation. And you know what, neither did I.

“He should be praised for this. He did not want to handcuff a team with his salary. He said, “How can I contribute to a team and allow them to stay competitive? So he took the most unselfish approach possible and deferred everything.’’

Besides, deferred or not, it is still 700 million dollars that will be paid to Ohtani, nearly twice as much as any baseball player in history.

“Even at $2 million, he still will be the highest-paid player in baseball for at least the next five years,’’ Balelo said. “He’s in such a unique position because he’s going to make so much money off the field."

Ohtani is projected to earn at least $50 million in endorsements beginning next year, so until someone is earning more than $52 million a year, no one will be higher paid. Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout receives the second-most money in endorsements at just $5 million.

“Basically,’’ Balelo says, “he’s in the most unique position of any player in the history of the game to be able to do this. It’s not like we’re setting a precedent that every player now is going to defer everything out in his contract.’’

Agent rips 'reckless reporting' about Blue Jays

If there’s a precedent to be made, says Balelo, head of baseball at CAA Sports, it may be how he conducted negotiations with teams. The entire process was cloaked in secrecy, frustrating reporters, and leading to a series of erroneous reports a week ago that Ohtani was signing with the Toronto Blue Jays.

“I felt really, really bad for the country of Canada,’’ Balelo said. “And I felt really, really bad for the Toronto Blue Jays organization. They are really good people. What they had to endure, and the pain, wasn't right. I felt so bad for all of them that they had to go through that because it was the extreme emotional roller coaster of thinking that they had him and then finding out they didn't.

“That was about the most reckless reporting I've ever experienced in this game."

The false reports provoked several teams to frantically call Balelo to see exactly what was true. The Dodgers knew the reports were false because Balelo had asked them earlier in the day, according to Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations, if they would be willing to meet the request of the 10-year, $700 million contract with $680 million deferred. The Blue Jays knew Ohtani wasn’t on a plane to Toronto because nothing was scheduled. And certainly, they were well aware that Ohtani has not reached an agreement with them.

Balelo met with Ohtani at 5 p.m. at his home Friday when Ohtani informed him that he wanted to sign with the Dodgers. It was no surprise to Balelo. The Dodgers were always at the forefront in talks. They even laughed at the uproar caused when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts candidly revealed at the winter meetings that the Dodgers and Ohtani had a private meeting at Dodger Stadium, remembering a published report that anything coming publicly from a team would be used against them        “That was ridiculous,’’ Balelo said. “Those words never came out of my mouth. Doc swallowed an honest pill that day. There was nothing wrong with it at all.

“As you can see, it sure didn’t have an effect, did it?’’

The most agonizing aspect of the ordeal was informing teams Saturday morning that Ohtani didn’t choose them. Balelo called Friedman Saturday morning at his son’s soccer game in Anaheim, and informed him that Ohtani picked the Dodgers and soon would be announcing his decision on his Instagram account. He called the Blue Jays. He called the San Francisco Giants. He called the Chicago Cubs. And he called the Los Angeles Angels, Ohtani’s home for the past six years.

The Dodgers, despite reports, never suddenly increased their offer in the last moments to make Ohtani change his mind. The Giants actually had the identical contract proposal on the table that Ohtani accepted with the Dodgers, according to Farhan Zaidi, Giants president of baseball operations. The Blue Jays’ proposal was similar. And the Angels simply refused to match.

“The Angels are special to Shohei,’’ Balelo said Thursday at the Dodgers’ press conference. “He was there for the last six years. Everybody has to understand. We felt that they earned the right to at least have a discussion at the end. And that’s what we did. …

“The Angels had every opportunity. And we had every opportunity. But at the end, it just wasn’t going to work.’’

One high-ranking executive familiar with the Angels’ negotiations said team owner Arte Moreno refused to accept the heavy deferrals. The Angels don’t have a single player with deferred money, and weren’t about to start now.

If the Angels had agreed to match the Dodgers’ offer, would Ohtani have elected to stay with the Angels?

“We’ll never know,’’ Balelo said, “will we?’’

What we do know is that Ohtani will be spending perhaps the rest of his career with the Dodgers, where 70 million viewed his televised press conference, shown at 8 a.m. in Japan.

The biggest star in the game is now playing for one of baseball’s iconic franchises that has just one World Series title, in the shortened 2020 COVID season, since Kirk Gibson’s home run was heard ‘round the world in 1988.

There’s no clause in his contract that specifies the Dodgers have to be competitive, but considering they have reached the postseason 11 consecutive years with 10 NL West titles, it’s obvious the Dodgers aren’t about to go into a rebuild any time in the next few decades.

Ohtani’s unprecedented contract, which counts for $46 million in the competitive balance tax ledger instead of $70 million, is already paying dividends. The Dodgers used that savings to acquire Tampa Bay Rays ace Tyler Glasnow in a trade Friday, giving him a five-year, $135 million contract that includes $110 million in new money.

Yes, Sho-Time has started in Los Angeles before he even put on his first pair of spikes.

Ohtani, who officially signed his contract Thursday afternoon in the Dodger Stadium offices just before the press conference, ended his day by thanking Balelo and hugging him. They did this together, pulling off a deal in which no one envisioned that it would reach historic levels.

Sure, maybe $500 million. OK, possibly $600 million. But $700 million for a two-way player who underwent elbow surgery in September and won’t pitch again until sometime in 2025 at the earliest?

Really, it started back in spring training when Ohtani decided he wanted to test the free-agent market after the season. He privately informed the Angels that didn’t want to negotiate during the year, and the Angels abided by his wishes. They didn’t trade him at the deadline, holding out hope they could reach the postseason, which would help keep him.

Ohtani, a private man who wouldn’t even disclose the name of his new dog (Dekopin, or Decoy in English), until the press conference, never shied away from letting everyone know the importance of winning to him. You saw it in his face during the World Baseball Classic. When he led Japan to the WBC gold medal, striking out teammate Mike Trout for the final out, it let him know what it felt like to be competing on the biggest stage after never reaching the postseason with the Angels.

“When I went down onto the field and embraced him,’’ Balelo said, “I can honestly say I ‘ve never seen that glow from him before. I knew how important that moment was for him and his country. He understood the impact that he made on the country of Japan.

“There was just such a sense of relief like, “I did it!’

“Of all the incredible things that I’ve witnessed him doing, that was the one that really captured who he truly is as an athlete.’’

Ohtani, 29, one of the most prepared and meticulous athletes in the world, handled his free agency the same way with Balelo. They invited everyone to have a conversation. They distinguished the serious bidders from those who were it only for publicity. And they orchestrated a strategy to assure that everything was handled professionally and not a circus.

What happened at the general manager meetings

When the general manager meetings began at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, Balelo was in town, but at a different hotel. The only ones who saw him were team executives who visited Balelo and gave their recruiting pitches.

I felt the GM meetings were a good gauge of where the interest level was,’’ Balelo said, “to understand who was serious, and who really who was just kicking the tires. There were a lot of teams that weren't going to be in play because of the level of [money] where they all felt this was going to go. So that that pretty much eliminated half the field.

“But the preparation started when Shohei told me that we were going to exercise our rights and free agency no matter what. We were going to go ahead and explore the market. So you start going into scenarios in your mind about how to approach the free agency, how to approach teams, how to approach negotiation. It's not just let's just get to the GM meetings and figure it out. It was strategic. It was a well thought-out approach, but knowing that there would be audibles along the way.’’

The key to the negotiations, Balelo said, was privacy. It never turned into a media frenzy. No one really knew who was out, who was in, who was in the lead or all of the places Ohtani visited.

Balelo asked teams to keep everything private, and every team readily agreed. Really, it’s the way teams would prefer to operate. Who wants to tip off their competition? And no one wants to look like losers in the high-stakes sweepstakes.

“I’m so glad we did it this way, and I would do the same thing over and over again,’’ Balelo said. “There’s not even a question in my mind. The clubs appreciated it and respected it. There wasn’t a team that said, 'You know what, let’s just get this out.'

“Shohei and I wanted to be able to control the narrative, and teams were on board with it. I heard that some media members felt that I needed to share information because this is a historical moment, but I 100% disagree. I can't even begin to even think how that makes sense. There has to be a level of confidentiality. …

“This was arguably the most highly exposed free agent ever on the market, and ultimately, I got the best result. So how can you judge and criticize the way that I approached this?"

In the end, it all worked out the way it was meant to be.

Ohtani, who insisted he was open to playing in colder climates, now gets to stay in Southern California.

The Dodgers land baseball’s biggest and brightest star where they can expand globally.

Major League Baseball has a TV ratings bonanza having Ohtani performing in the second-largest market in the country.

And baseball has a hero, forfeiting his present day-valued paychecks for potential future World Series championships.

“I don’t think we’re going to see anything like this,’’ Balelo said, “ever again.’’

Follow Bob Nightengale on X @Bnightengale

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