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Japanese stars like Shohei Ohtani have long boosted Phoenix's spring training economy

LA Dodgers sensation Shohei Ohtani is drawing so much attention at spring training that the team had to expand its press box. Japanese stars have long boosted Phoenix's spring training economy.

AILSA CHANG, HOST: Spring training baseball starts this week in Arizona, and a main attraction is the new star of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Shohei Ohtani. Matthew Casey of KJZZ reports.

MATTHEW CASEY, BYLINE: Fans in blue line a path between the clubhouse and the main practice field at Camelback Ranch, where the Dodgers play their spring training games. Their love greets members of the Dodgers as they step out into the warm February sun. Newly signed ace pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto draws a roar as he sprints by.

(CROSSTALK)

CASEY: Yamamoto helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic last year. He joins Shohei Ohtani, who the Dodgers signed last year for $700 million. The pair are drawing a lot of interest at spring training, says Camelback Ranch President Matt Slatus.

MATT SLATUS: We actually had to build out a satellite press box on the exterior of the facility. Right now, we've got about 100 media in town every single day.

CASEY: In previous seasons, Ohtani trained across town with the LA Angels, the team he left. That he stayed in metro Phoenix is a win for Arizona. A local study says the Cactus League added nearly $419 million to the state's gross domestic product last year.

SLATUS: I think that when you change teams, it's almost like a rebirth. And we talk about spring training every year as hope springs eternal.

CASEY: Ohtani only takes batting practice today. Recovering from major elbow surgery, the hitting and pitching prodigy is not expected on the mound this year. Members of the Japanese media watch from the first base side of home plate. Ohtani swings, and disaster threatens. Shutters click as Ohtani reacts to having fouled a pitch off of his body. The unique energy around him reminds top Cactus League officials of the flock of reporters and fans drawn years ago by Japan's Ichiro Suzuki, also an MVP, who retired from the Seattle Mariners in 2019. Ohtani continues batting practice in a way that simulates at bats in a game. On his third and final time up, Ohtani connects.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST: Matthew Casey for NPR News.

More stories from KJZZ

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.