Saturday, March 2

The flight of N616RH: When Shohei Ohtani’s contract saga jumped the shark (tank)

The Athletic has live coverage of Shohei Ohtani’s first Dodgers press conference

On Friday morning, Robert Herjavec was tracking to be on time for a 9 a.m. flight out of John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., until his 5-year-old twins, Hudson and Haven, announced in the car that they were hungry.

Herjavec, a Canadian businessman and star of “Shark Tank” and “Dragons’ Den,” was traveling solo with the twins. Not wanting to start a four-and-a-half-hour flight on the wrong foot, Herjavec stopped for breakfast and texted the pilot that they’d be late. “That’s the beauty of having your own plane,” Herjavec said by phone Monday. “You show up whenever you want to go.”

Herjavec didn’t know at the time that the 40-minute delay had just added fuel to a rumor spreading rapidly since the previous night, when an X user posted that a private jet, tail number N616RH, was scheduled to fly from Santa Ana to Toronto in the morning. Amateur internet sleuths connected dots — like flight trackers showing the jet had been in Oakland when Ohtani met with the Giants in San Francisco; that Ohtani had signed on that day, Dec. 8, in his first free agency; and that he’d flown on a Bombardier Global 5000 before — and determined that Shohei Ohtani, baseball unicorn, was flying private to Toronto to sign with the Blue Jays.

The delay, the theory went, was Ohtani getting cold feet.


Businessman and television personality Robert Herjavec found himself the unexpected center of international attention. (Gabriel Olsen / Getty Images)

Herjavec hadn’t followed the frenzy surrounding Ohtani’s free agency. He’d been in Australia for almost a month with his family. His wife, Kym, remained in Australia for a funeral, so as Herjavec boarded the jet he was focused on keeping the twins entertained. He broke out books, board games and coloring worksheets, then turned off his phone for the duration of the flight.

As N616RH took to the air, the baseball world waited to see whether Shohei Ohtani would step onto the tarmac in Toronto. A crowd assembled outside the private terminal at Toronto Pearson Airport, and a far larger one formed online as tens of thousands of people followed on free flight trackers. But it wasn’t Ohtani on board. It was a tired dad and his wired twins.

“Such a weird confluence of events,” Herjavec said, “that the one time I’m completely unplugged from the world, the world is plugged in to me.”


Even before N616RH left the hangar in Santa Ana Friday morning, Ohtani speculation was flying at hyper speed. Baseball insider Jon Paul Morosi had reported a decision was “imminent.” In Toronto, former NHLer Carlo Colaiacovo, now a morning radio host with TSN 1050, read on air a message from the show’s text line saying Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi had made a Friday night reservation for 50 people at a sushi restaurant near Rogers Centre.

“I clearly stated afterward, ‘People, don’t (read) anything into this,’” Colaiacovo recalled. “‘This is not coming from a credible source. It’s something someone is suggesting on our text line.’”

But, after the show, the show’s producer shared with Colaiacovo a tweet from Canadian opera singer Clarence Frazer that reported that same rumor as true.

“I’m like, you gotta be kidding me,” Colaiacovo said.

Still, even if the sushi restaurant was a bad lead, Colaiacovo found himself believing for the first time that Ohtani actually would sign with Toronto. “That was the closest I found myself invested in this,” he said, “just because I’d always thought it was a pipe dream.” He was tracking the flight of N616RH along with everyone else.

In the rush to connect dots, some obvious red flags were ignored. For one, N616RH’s flight log showed the jet flies frequently out of Toronto and in the past two months went everywhere from London to Zagreb and, in Southern California, Van Nuys and Santa Ana. Also, the jet had been sitting for almost a month at the Oakland airport. On Friday morning, Reddit user _jr56_ flagged that N616RH was Herjavec’s jet — RH in the tail number is for Robert Herjavec — but was accused of lying. “I am saying this because I just asked the pilot and I know everyone associated with this plane on a personal level,” _jr56_ wrote.

When N616RH was over Colorado, the website Dodgers Nation stated that Ohtani had made his choice: the Blue Jays. Later, the jet was crossing above Lake Huron when Morosi said Ohtani was en route to Toronto. Both reports were refuted by other insiders, but Ohtani watch was at a full boil. There was no stopping it now. As N616RH entered Canadian airspace, Flightradar24, an online flight tracker, had 18,800 people following the flight, their most-tracked flight of the day. (Another tracker, Flight Aware, declined to release figures.)

Later, Herjavec saw videos elated fans had filmed from the ground as N616RH passed overhead. “They’re like, ‘Ohtani’s jet just flew over my house,’” he said. “I’m like, hey, that’s my jet!”

 


Evan Mitsui, a photographer for CBC News, was on assignment elsewhere in Toronto on Friday afternoon when a reporter asked him to head to the airport. Mitsui drove in traffic for an hour, parked and found a spot with a view of Hangar 8, where N616RH had stayed previously. Mitsui wasn’t the first one on site. There were Blue Jays fans, some celebrity watchers and media members. There was also security, Mitsui said, “which felt like a good sign.”

Mitsui grew up a Mariners fan in Vancouver, and because his grandfather was Japanese their whole family adored Ichiro Suzuki. Mitsui has since adopted the Jays as his home team, and he was thrilled about the idea of Ohtani playing there for the rest of his career.

At 4:23 p.m. in Toronto, N616RH taxied toward Hangar 8 and stopped just out of sight of the cameras. Mitsui and his Reuters colleague, Carlos Osorio, jumped back in the car, turned a corner and encountered another group of photographers and fans, with a better vantage point. There, standing in a ditch between a concrete barrier and chainlink fence, Mitsui raised his Canon camera and trained the 300 millimeter lens on the front door of N616RH.

Inside, Herjavec saw Canadian customs agents approaching.

“I’m getting the kids ready,” he said. “The airplane is a disaster, as you can imagine. I’m getting them dressed. I turned my phone on, and it’s going crazy. I look out the window, and the customs guys are there. Normally when you land privately in Canada, you get cleared online. It’s pretty rare that customs comes on.”

Herjavec hadn’t been privy to the hours of anticipation for N616RH’s landing. He also hadn’t been privy to the radio call from Pearson ground control that had crackled into the pilot’s headset when the plane touched down in Toronto: “November 6-1-6 Romeo Hotel, ground, hello. A very warm welcome to everybody that may, or may not, be on board to Toronto.” All Herjavec knew was that there were customs agents climbing the staircase into the jet.

“Where is he?” an agent asked.

“Who?” Herjavec asked.

“Ohtani.”

“Ohtani?”

As they started to sort out the confusion, the customs agent mentioned there were a lot of people waiting outside the airport. Herjavec scanned the fenceline and saw photographers, videographers and security personnel. He said there was a helicopter circling, too.

“Now I expect that treatment every time I land,” Herjavec joked. “It was like something out of a movie — which, of course, makes you realize after 21 years on ‘Shark Tank’ and ‘Dragons’ Den’ that we really are not that famous. We need to go out and find more $700 million deals.”

Neither Mitsui nor the people standing beside him in the ditch noticed that the tail of the jet had a shark fin logo and a name: Herjavec.

“You have blinders on,” Mitsui said. “I remember sitting there in the ditch, eagle eyes on the door on the front of the plane like my life depended on it.”

Mitsui laughed.

“And then this guy gets out,” he said, “and it’s clearly not Ohtani.”


Shohei Ohtani was absolutely, positively not on N616RH. (Kyodo via AP Images)

As Herjavec and the twins stepped into a waiting Cadillac SUV, Mitsui and Osorio didn’t budge. They stayed there for a half hour, then waited in the car for another half hour just in case Ohtani’s agents planned to sneak him off the plane after the crowd had dispersed. The photographers would never forgive themselves if they left early. “How wild would that be if we were the only two guys with a picture of Ohtani setting foot on Canadian soil for the first time as a Jay?” Mitsui said. “That’s what we were thinking: Don’t blow this shot.”

But Ohtani wasn’t on the jet. He wasn’t coming. The photographers packed up and headed home. On the way, CBC News sports reporter Devin Heroux called Mitsui and asked if he could confirm it was Herjavec. Mitsui could. He hadn’t realized anyone would care. Heroux tweeted the news. More than 4.2 million people have viewed that post since Friday. Then an editor on the news desk asked if Mitsui had any photos. “I’ve got pictures of a plane with a door open and a guy who’s not Ohtani,” Mitsui told him, sitting in traffic. The editor said to send one over.

“I was so focused on getting a picture that, when that picture didn’t materialize, that was it. I lost interest,” Mitsui said, laughing. “Had I been a better journalist, I would have realized that was information the rest of the world cared about.”


On the drive home, it started to click for Herjavec that, from before he’d even gone to bed in Southern California the night before, his jet had been at the center of the baseball universe.

“All my friends were texting me,” he said. “The reaction went from, ‘Hey, are you buying the Blue Jays?’ to ‘Why didn’t you tell me you knew Ohtani?’ to ‘Are you negotiating this deal?’ I’m thinking the story is big news in the baseball world. But I get in the car, I’m driving home, I turn on the radio. It’s national news in Canada. The Ohtani jet has just landed, with my tail number on it.”

But then, being a Blue Jays fan who spent most of his childhood in Ontario and celebrated two World Series titles in his early 30s, Herjavec started to get sucked into the Ohtani rumors. He loved the idea of the Blue Jays beating out the other big-city ball clubs to land Ohtani. There had to be some truth to all the reports, right? “I got excited,” he said. “I was like, oh, maybe they just got the wrong flight. Maybe he’s behind me. Maybe there’s another flight coming.”

Herjavec had some fun with the Ohtani saga Friday night, posting a Photoshopped photo of himself in a Blue Jays uniform, but since then he’s come to know about the theories swirling around his flight.

Like the one Colaiacovo, the radio host, still finds fishy. Ohtani is represented by CAA. Herjavec is a CAA client, too. Colaiacovo believes the Blue Jays got played. As a former pro athlete, he said he applauds Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, for executing a plan to perfection without unintended leaks. Colaiacovo feels Ohtani wanted to sign with the Dodgers all along, and Ohtani’s camp made the Blue Jays possibility seem real so as to spook the Dodgers into caving.

And they made that happen, Colaiacovo theorized, by sending Herjavec on a strategically timed flight to Toronto, going quiet and letting the baseball world believe Ohtani was on N616RH.

“It makes you question,” Colaiacovo said. “Why was Robert leaving from that airport to Toronto, on that day, at that time, and is linked to the same agency?”

Herjavec has seen that theory. He’s had friends ask about it.

“I thought that was interesting,” Herjavec acknowledged before dismissing it. “I’m sure Ohtani knows who his agent at CAA is, whereas I infrequently talk to my agent — maybe because he’s not negotiating $700 million deals for me. I’ll have to call him. Absolutely no truth to it. CAA is a big agency. They just happen to rep both of us. But, funny story. Fake media is definitely a real thing. Isn’t it incredible how just one little (detail), and people just want to connect the dots?”

Herjavec has a home in Hidden Hills, Calif., but he said he’s refusing to go to Dodger Stadium. They took Ohtani from the Jays, and for that reason, he’s out. “It pisses me off,” he said. “I’m waiting for the Blue Jays to invite me to the season opener to throw out the first pitch.” He might be in luck. The Blue Jays reached out Monday morning. Before calling them back, Herjavec said he was hopeful he could get a $400 million deal for 5-year-old Hudson to pitch for the Jays.

“He’s got a pretty mean knuckleball,” Herjavec said.

Ask Herjavec, a guy who knows deals, about the 10-year, $700 million contract Ohtani has agreed to with the Dodgers, and he launches into his thoughts. That kind of money impresses even a shark.

“Incredible,” he said. “The largest sports deal in history. I think it goes to show you how the dynamics of sports has changed. I mean, look at what my friend Mark Cuban just did. He sold a percentage of the Mavs at a $3.5 billion valuation for a team he bought for $285 million 23 years ago. There’s no doubt that everything’s increasing — money, salaries, TV rights. Have we peaked? Or is this about to go to another level?

“Is it like Formula 1? Liberty Media bought Formula 1 for $4 billion. And now the market value of Formula 1 is $20 billion. So I think a lot of smart money thinks that baseball and all live TV is heading in that direction.

“Cuban and I bought a pickleball club a couple years ago. I don’t know if we’re going to have the same trajectory, but as Mark tells me, we’re going to make hundreds of dollars on that.”

Ask Herjavec about his Friday flight on N616RH, though, and he just laughs.

“Well, after 21 years on TV,” he said, “it extended my 15 minutes of fame into the 16th minute.”

(Illustration of Bombardier Global jet and Shohei Ohtani: Ohtani Photo by Ezra Shaw / Getty Images; Bombardier photo Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images)