'He's gonna be a Blue Jay.' Inside the day Shohei Ohtani did not fly to Toronto

It all started with a tweet.

Two of them, actually.

On Dec. 8 last year, during a Friday afternoon in the thick of MLB’s offseason, Toronto-based freelance photographer — and proud Blue Jays fan — Carlos Osorio was scrolling through X (formerly Twitter) when he saw a flurry of social media speculation centered on Shohei Ohtani.

It began with one post tracking a private jet flying from Orange County to Toronto; one that online sleuths deduced must have been taking Ohtani to meet — or sign — with the Blue Jays, a known finalist in the sweepstakes for the free-agent star.

Then came apparent confirmation from an MLB Network reporter, who asserted that “Shohei Ohtani is en route to Toronto today,” citing multiple unspecified sources.

With his curiosity piqued, and his Blue Jays fandom buzzing, Osorio decided to jump into action. He emailed his editor with Reuters, offering to drive to Toronto Pearson Airport to capture Ohtani’s supposed arrival. He joined a pack of other photographers and autograph hounds who watched as the plane touched down at 4:23 p.m. local time, fully expecting Ohtani to soon be in his sights.

“Oh my god, here we go,” Osorio thought to himself as he followed the plane’s taxi to a hanger tarmac. “We’re gonna have the first pictures of Ohtani.”

When the door opened, however, it was Canadian businessman and television celebrity Robert Herjavec who descended the steps.

In a mix-up of epic, social media-fueled proportions, the reality of the saga suddenly became clear.

Ohtani wasn’t on the plane, which was actually Herjavec’s personal jet (the final characters of the plane’s tail number, N616RH, reportedly correspond to Herjavec’s initials).

The superstar slugger wasn’t signing with the Blue Jays either, announcing instead the next day he was going to the Dodgers on a 10-year, $700 million deal.

Like many fellow Blue Jays fans, Osorio’s heart immediately sank.

“The plane lands, and I’m like, ‘S—,’” Osorio recalled this week. “We get there just in time to see Robert getting out of this plane and going into a car. That was it.”

There had been plenty of smoke, but no actual fire.

“I think if we had probably Googled the plane, we maybe could have found a photo of Herjavec and the plane somewhere,” Osorio laughed upon reflection this week, noting that Herjavec is well-known in Canada from his appearances on TV shows like “Dragon Den” and “Shark Tank.”

“But I was just so hyped,” Osorio added. “Like, [Ohtani] has to be on it. He’s coming. He’s gonna be a Blue Jay. We’re gonna win the World Series.”

For the first time since that day, Ohtani and the Dodgers will return to Toronto on Friday, opening a three-game series with the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

By now, enough time has passed that the flight has faded from daily conversation — around the Blue Jays, the Dodgers and a baseball industry that at the time had frenzied over the situation.

“I was as surprised as any fans,” Ohtani said through interpreter Will Ireton this week, “in terms of the news that was going around.”

Still, the story line will loom as a subplot not only this weekend, but for possibly months and years ahead for both teams.

The Dodgers feared they had lost Ohtani, only to land him the next day. The Blue Jays hoped they were getting the Japanese star, only to strike out in what became an underwhelming offseason. And Ohtani himself was left stuck in the middle, sitting at home wondering what to make of all the false information.

“I did meet with the Blue Jays organization, and the impression that I got was it was a really, really great organization,” Ohtani said. “The fans are really good. The city, too.”

As for the rumors of the Dec. 8 flight, and a coinciding report from a Dodgers-centric website claiming Ohtani was indeed signing with the Blue Jays?

“I was just following the news,” Ohtani said with a chuckle. “I knew I wasn’t on that flight, so I was curious too.”

It might have been one of the worst rounds of golf in Dave Roberts’ life.

Playing that day in a group that included actor Brian Baumgartner — better known as Kevin from NBC’s popular sitcom, “The Office” — Roberts was alerted of the Ohtani-to-Toronto reports at some point during the round’s back nine.

He, too, assumed there must be some truth to the rumors. Less than a week after being part of the Dodgers’ contingent that met with Ohtani at Dodger Stadium, his golf game imploded at the thought of the team’s top offseason target slipping away.

“I’m better than I showed,” Roberts joked recently. “I was miserable that day.”

The Dodgers manager can laugh now knowing how the drama unfolded. But in the moment, he wasn’t the only member of the organization grappling with the firestorm of uncertainty.

Although president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman had doubts about the accuracy of the reports, he felt nonetheless uneasy with the level of details emerging online — there were also incorrect rumors of a celebratory dinner being planned that night by Toronto pitcher (and fellow Japanese star) Yusei Kikuchi; of a news conference that the Blue Jays were planning to call; and of the impact that executives with Rogers Communications, a Canadian conglomerate that owns the country’s only MLB club, had made to ostensibly woo Ohtani north of the border.

“There were times I felt more confident,” Friedman said. “And there were times I felt extremely low.”

Some of his players were more resigned to the apparent fate.

While playing winter ball in Venezuela, infielder Miguel Rojas took the reports as truth. “I fell for that one for sure,” he said. “I definitely felt like he wasn’t gonna come to us.”

Back in L.A., reliever Joe Kelly worried his personal offer to Ohtani — to give up his No. 17 jersey number if Ohtani signed with the Dodgers — would go unfulfilled.

“It’s probably one of those weirder [free-agent situations], right?” Kelly said. “The internet is so fast, you can’t ever know something for sure until it’s done.”

Not every Dodger was locked in on the ever-changing developments. Freddie Freeman only heard about the situation once his wife, Chelsea, alerted him to it. Mookie Betts apparently missed the episode entirely, wearing a puzzled expression when asked about the flight this week.

“I have no idea,” Betts said. “I paid zero attention to all that.”

By now, those who rode the emotional rollercoaster have put the memory far into the rearview mirror.

“I don’t really give it too much mind,” Roberts quipped.

And ahead of this week’s trip to Toronto, no one seemed worried about the reception that might await Ohtani from Blue Jays fans — who were duped not by the two-way star himself, but by inaccurate information amplified through an online rumor mill.

“It’s not like he disrespected the fan base at all,” Roberts said. “He entertained them and had nice things to say about them. So I expect him to be just fine.”

“It’s not his fault,” Freeman said, “that the media was wrong.”

Roughly 24 hours after the Ohtani-less flight touched down, the free agent made his actual choice official on Instagram on Dec. 9, announcing his decision to sign with the Dodgers.

In the Southland, the news was met with elation and relief.

“To get that call was incredible,” Friedman said at Ohtani’s introductory news conference. “And making the calls to our guys who put in so much time and energy was awesome.”

Back in Toronto, meanwhile, the doubts that had risen from the debunked reports the day prior were only disappointingly confirmed.

“It really did feel like the Blue Jays were in the mix for him, which alone was huge,” said Blake Murphy, an analyst and broadcaster for Sportsnet, the Canadian television network and Blue Jays broadcast partner. “And then, yeah, that Saturday, late afternoon, the alert comes that he’s going to the Dodgers.”

As Murphy scrambled to get on the air that day — short of interrupting a live Maple Leafs game, he said, Sportsnet had plans for live TV coverage as soon as Ohtani made his choice — he recalled the reaction of most Blue Jays fans falling into one of two camps.

There were the realists, Murphy said, who thought, “Oh man, that would have been really, really cool. That’s disappointing.”

And then there were the rationalizers, a vocal minority who claimed the Blue Jays “were never in it anyways,” and that the club was “just used as leverage” for Ohtani’s record-breaking contract in L.A. (In reality, Ohtani had spelled out similar contract terms to each of the finalists he was considering.)

There was one shared frustration among Blue Jays faithful, stemming from the team’s inability to pivot over the remainder of the offseason.

Without Ohtani, the team’s only notable additions were pitcher Yariel Rodriguez, a Cuban right-hander who’d been playing in Japan; infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa, whose $15 million signing was panned by many pundits as an overpay by the team’s front office; and former Dodgers favorite Justin Turner, whose .324 batting average heading into this weekend has made him one of the few offensive brights spots for the Blue Jays.

“It turns out, it was kind of a Shohei or bust offseason,” Murphy said of the Blue Jays, who enter the weekend 13-13 and tied for last in the American League East. “It was so underwhelming compared to the idea of Shohei. It was a weird cycle.”

Both Osorio and Murphy expect Ohtani to receive mostly cheers during this weekend’s series.

“Nice Canadians, you know?” Osorio said jokingly.

Added Murphy: “He might get a couple strays that are more like proxy boos. But they’ll be booing what didn’t happen in free agency.”

Reflecting on the situation this week, Osorio chalked it up as “typical Toronto fashion with our sports teams,” comparing the disappointment to that of the Maple Leafs’ recent postseason failures.

“It was one of those things where, I was sitting around with a friend the next day, saying ‘Remember yesterday, when we thought Ohtani was coming here? That was awesome,’” Osorio recounted, longingly.

Indeed, for Blue Jays fans it would have been — had only the tweets about the flight actually been true.

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