The lunch rush was in full force Tuesday, and the sushi was efficiently delivered to scores of diners on a conveyor belt. Kura might not be a household name in the United States, but the revolving sushi bar has hundreds of locations in Japan.
“It’s kind of like Starbucks over there,” said Eric Contreras, assistant manager of the Irvine restaurant.
This Kura is located at Diamond Jamboree, a shopping center that ranks as one of the most consistently crowded places in Orange County, a few freeway exits from Angel Stadium. Contreras said the Kura restaurant in Little Tokyo, near Dodger Stadium, is not as busy as this one.
You won’t find a McDonald’s or Panda Express or Ralphs at Diamond Jamboree, but you will find authentic Asian culture in its restaurants and stores.
You will find CoCo Ichibanya, which started in Japan in 1974 and bills itself as the “biggest curry chain in the world.” You will find fast food and fine dining from Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. The grocery store does not sell the Los Angeles Times or the Los Angeles Daily News, but it does sell the Korea Times and the Chinese Daily News.
The Shohei Ohtani watch has come to this. If Ohtani knows what factor might be most decisive in selecting a team — the Dodgers, Angels, or otherwise — he isn’t saying. His seven finalists have one thing in common: spring training in Arizona.
He is 23. He would be living abroad for the first time. Logic might suggest he would prefer to play for a team in a market with a large Japanese community, and both the Dodgers and Angels are among the finalists that fit that description.
Kay Doling, marketing manager for the Tokyo Table restaurant at Diamond Jamboree, said Ohtani could find suburban safety and comfort in the Irvine area.
“But it’s not a Japantown or a Little Tokyo,” Doling said.
In Little Tokyo, Ohtani might be more of a celebrity than he might like, Contreras said. Orange County might be “more homey” and people more respectful of Ohtani’s privacy, he said.
The tea leaves run dry. The Seattle Mariners have a long and proud history of featuring Japanese players, and Nintendo owns a share of the team. The Texas Rangers happily employed Ohtani’s friend Yu Darvish. Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein recruited Daisuke Matsuzaka to Boston. The San Francisco Giants have three rings this decade, a huge Japanese community among their fan base, and a bench coach who speaks Japanese.
The Dodgers boast what is widely regarded as baseball’s most creative front office, and they undoubtedly have presented Ohtani with options intended to maximize his opportunities to pitch and hit.
Because starting pitchers generally work once a week in Japan, Ohtani might care that the Dodgers eased Kenta Maeda’s transition to the major leagues by using him on more than four days’ rest in the majority of his starts last year. Or Ohtani might care that the Dodgers put Maeda on the disabled list this year on the day after he took a shutout into the ninth inning, not because he was seriously hurt but because of what manager Dave Roberts called “the potential for injury.” Or Ohtani might not care either way.
The Angels boast one of the best players in the game, Mike Trout. Ohtani might choose to measure himself against Trout and, depending on the condition of Garrett Richards, could emerge as the ace of the team. The Angels, the last team eliminated from the American League playoffs this year, have a rotation beyond Richards tilted toward too many No. 4 starters with injury histories. If Ohtani cares to be the guy that could lift a team into the playoffs, he might make his greatest difference with the Angels.
Trout is not the face of baseball’s marketing efforts because he chooses not to be. He would rather spend his off-season hanging out with his family and cheering on the Philadelphia Eagles than flying from one commercial shoot to another. Ohtani would rather play video games. Two of a kind?
The Ohtani derby is great theater, and good for Ohtani. The system is rigged against him; he is an accomplished professional player forced to accept a bonus suited to an unproven high school or college player. However, he is enjoying the flip side of that injustice: simply choosing the team for which he wants to play, rather than auctioning his services.
No one knows what he will do. The latest speculation focuses on the San Diego Padres, with their extensive Japanese ties in the front office, including former Dodgers scouting director Logan White, former Dodgers coordinator of Asian operations Acey Kohrogi, and former Dodgers pitchers Hideo Nomo and Takashi Saito. The Padres, unlike the other six finalists, could let Ohtani grow into his major league hitting shoes, rather than fret about what to do if he is hitting .200 in June.
Ohtani could get a condo within walking distance of Petco Park, play video games by day and Major League Baseball by night. If all he wants is to play baseball, live somewhere he enjoys and not chase every last dollar, he would not have to look far for a role model. He would play his home games at 19 Tony Gwynn Drive.