Shohei Ohtani interpreter’s explosive gambling controversy, explained

Shohei Ohtani has the Los Angeles Dodgers and Major League Baseball in damage control mode after reports emerged on Wednesday that MLB’s most marketable global megastar was adjacent to a swirling gambling scandal.

It’s a story that involves an illegal bookmaker, claims of theft, accusations of fraud by a long-term friend, and explanations that have raised more questions than given answers. There’s plenty of vested interest in shielding Ohtani with Opening Day around the corner — which has led to doubt, and even conspiracy theories about what exactly happened.

The Los Angeles Times report

On Thursday, March 20 the Los Angeles Times published a report that Shohei Ohtani’s lawyers contacted the paper alleging that Ohtani was the victim of “massive theft” at the hands of interpreter and long-time friend, Ippei Mizuhara.

This information was given to the paper after it learned that Ohtani was named in an investigation into Orange County resident Mathew Boyer. It’s believed Boyer is part of a much larger, multi-million illegal gambling operation, with Boyer serving as a bookmaker. He is reported to have told people that he knew Ohtani, and intimated that the Dodgers star used him as a bookmaker — which is believed to have been a tactic to entice others to place bets with him.

The link between Boyer and Ohtani is alleged to have been Mizuhara, with Ohtani’s camp claiming the interpreter stole millions of dollars from the Dodgers star to pay off gambling debts he racked up.

The ESPN report, which made things even weirder

Shortly following the initial report by the LA Times, ESPN published its own report about the gambling investigation and Mizuhara’s involvement. In it a spokesperson reached out to ESPN earlier in the week and wanted to clarify how Ohtani was being named in the investigation.

This spokesperson told ESPN that Ohtani transferred $4.5 million to a bookmaking operation in order to cover debts racked up by Mizuhara, with the network also spending 90 minutes with Mizuhara himself to clarify the nature of the allegations.

“Obviously, he [Ohtani] wasn’t happy about it and said he would help me out to make sure I never do this again,” Mizuhara said. “He decided to pay it off for me.

“I want everyone to know Shohei had zero involvement in betting. I want people to know I did not know this was illegal. I learned my lesson the hard way. I will never do sports betting ever again.”

However, as ESPN was preparing to run the story, Ohtani’s camp reached out to disavow statements by Mizuhara, saying the information was not accurate — and that lawyers would be issuing a statement.

“Initially, a spokesman for Ohtani told ESPN the slugger had transferred the funds to cover Mizuhara’s gambling debt. The spokesman presented Mizuhara to ESPN for a 90-minute interview Tuesday night, during which Mizuhara laid out his account in great detail. However, as ESPN prepared to publish the story Wednesday, the spokesman disavowed Mizuhara’s account and said Ohtani’s lawyers would issue a statement.”

We now know that statement is the one that alleges Ohtani was a victim of fraud and theft, asserting that he did nothing wrong and Mizuhara acted independently.

The change in message leads to more questions

This is where the entire situation gets very murky and raises some serious questions. To lay it out again, here’s the full timeline of events up to this point.

  1. Media outlets learn Ohtani has been named in an investigation into illegal gambling and starts making calls to learn more
  2. An Ohtani spokesperson responds saying Ohtani gave money to Mizuhara
  3. Mizuhara reaches out to clarify, saying that Ohtani was helping him pay off debt — but the player himself wasn’t involved in placing bets at all
  4. Ohtani’s lawyers say Mizuhara lied, and actually stole the money from Ohtani without him knowing
  5. The Dodgers fire Mizuhara as Ohtani’s interpreter and all questions are directed to Ohtani’s lawyers

There is a massive break in logic when it comes to Mizuhara both being an alleged thief who stole money from Ohtani, but also someone who reached out to ESPN to take the fall and clarify that Ohtani had nothing to do with it.

At some point during this process the messaging changed drastically. It morphed from Ohtani’s camp having a unified message about the player helping out his friend, to Mizuhara being a criminal who operated without any involvement.

This change in tone has one very obvious nucleus.

MLB’s rules on gambling

It goes without saying that players are banned from betting on baseball. That goes back to the Black Sox Scandal, to Pete Rose, it’s well-worn into the fabric of baseball history. However, as legal sports betting has spread across the United States there has been a relaxed approach to allowing players to bet on other sports and take part in gambling.

Heck, even on the majority of their “must see” video content on the homepage is dedicated to odds, which are presented by FanDuel — an official gambling partner of Major League Baseball.

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However, the league explicitly draws the line at using illegal gambling operations.

(3) Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee who places bets with illegal book makers, or agents for illegal book makers, shall be subject to such penalty as the Commissioner deems appropriate in light of the facts and circumstances of the conduct. Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee who operates or works for an illegal bookmaking business shall be subject to a minimum of a one-year suspension by the Commissioner. For purposes of this provision, an illegal bookmaker is an individual who accepts, places or handles wagers on sporting events from members of the public as part of a gaming operation that is unlawful in the jurisdiction in which the bets are accepted.

It’s unclear how this would apply to Ohtani making payments on Mizuhara’s behalf, or if it wouldn’t apply at all — but it at least creates enough doubt that the Dodgers player needs to distance himself from the situation. This could also explain why the tone morphed from “Ohtani helped out a friend” to “Ohtani had money stolen from him.” If lawyers advised their client that he needed to distance himself from the gambling situation, it would only make sense to disavow Mizuhara’s comments and pivot to another explanation.

Things still aren’t adding up

On Wednesday night Mizuhara spoke briefly to the media, saying that Ohtani had no knowledge of his gambling activity, debts, or any attempts to pay them. The interpreter was now towing the line set by Ohtani’s lawyers.

One major thing has been missing from every statement from Ohtani’s camp: Threats of legal action.

Here we have Mizuhara, who is alleged to have stolen $4.5M from Shohei Ohtani, and committed fraud in order to steal the funds — and yet there’s been no mention of filing a suit to get that money back. The entire focus of the Ohtani legal team is ensuring people know Ohtani was a victim who never gambled, but that has stopped short of actually trying to get the stolen money back. It doesn’t really add up.

Meanwhile MLB isn’t investigating Ohtani, according to The Athletic. It’s pretty wild that, to this point, MLB has yet to take the time to dig into it at all.

That part, well, it adds up pretty simply: MLB have vested interest in Ohtani playing in 2024, and without casting a negative light on gambling. They have partnerships in place, marketing pushes surrounding Ohtani, he’s the centerpiece of the league at this point. Investigating him for any impropriety is antithetical to making money.

Where does this leave us?

We truly don’t know what happened behind closed doors. It’s also unclear if there will ever be a proper investigation to clarify what occurred.

Ohtani obviously wants to head into the season without controversy. The Dodgers want to ensure they have their new star player. MLB wants Ohtani to play so they can market him. There’s nobody in a position of power or influence who wants to learn the truth.

Ippei Mizuhara has been fired. He’s known Ohtani for over a decade dating back to Ohtani’s playing days in Japan. The two were close friends, and they still may be — but Mizuhara has, deservedly or not, become the fall guy for this whole situation.

The goal is the keep the money printer from breaking down, and everyone is pulling in the same direction to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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