Shohei Ohtani leaves unanswered questions after blaming his interpreter in gambling scandal

written by I. Nelson Rose
2024

Shohei Ohtani’s calm, deliberate delivery Monday of his version of events surrounding the payment of his longtime interpreter Ippei Mizuhara’s gambling debts leaves no doubt where he stands on the matter.

He does not and never has placed bets on any sport. He was oblivious to the alleged theft by Mizuhara of millions of dollars from his bank account. He is shocked and saddened. Lawyers can take it from here. Play ball!

And by the way, Ohtani unequivocally branded his former close friend, workout partner and right-hand man as a liar and a thief.

That was Ohtani’s take, at least. The picture was not so sharply focused from the bleacher seats.

Since The Times broke the story that wire transfers totaling millions of dollars were sent last fall from Ohtani’s bank account to alleged Orange County bookmaker Mathew Bowyer, questions are plentiful and answers elusive.

Ohtani took no questions from the 70-plus media members in attendance at Dodger Stadium, leaving many issues lingering as Major League Baseball and the Internal Revenue Service join the ongoing probe by federal authorities into any role Ohtani might have played in an illegal sports gambling operation.

Here are some of those questions, along with the answers available at this point.

A public relations consultant who specializes in crisis management apparently made that call and joined Mizuhara during the 90-minute interview. ESPN reported that the consultant was hired hours after the outlet contacted Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, on March 18 to ask about information it uncovered, including that Ohtani’s name appeared to be on two wire transfers totaling $1 million.

Even if Ohtani’s team arranged the interview, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean Ohtani knew about it or that he’d known what Mizuhara would say.

Ohtani said he first learned of Mizuhara’s gambling issues and alleged theft two days later, when the interpreter spun the same tale while addressing the Dodgers team in the clubhouse after the season opener in Seoul.

Mizuhara apologized, admitted he has a gambling addiction and stated that Ohtani paid what Mizuhara owed. ESPN reported that Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, also told the team Ohtani had helped cover Mizuhara’s debts.

Ohtani asserted that everything Mizuhara told the team was new to him.

“During the team meeting, obviously, Ippei was speaking in English and I didn’t have a translator on my side,” Ohtani said. “But even with that, I kind of understood what was going on and started to feel that there was something amiss. … Up until that team meeting, I didn’t know Ippei had a gambling addiction and was in debt. Obviously at that point, or, obviously, I never agreed to pay off the debt or make payments to the bookmaker.”

Ohtani and Mizuhara spoke one-on-one shortly thereafter at the team hotel.

“That’s when I found out he had a massive debt,” Ohtani said. “And it was revealed to me during that meeting that Ippei admitted he was sending money, using my account, to the bookmaker. And at that moment, obviously it was an absurd thing that was happening and I contacted my representatives.”

Ohtani said his representatives determined Mizuhara had been “lying the whole time,” and that the “Dodgers and the lawyers at that moment found out as well that they’d been lied to.”

The Dodgers fired Mizuhara that day.

Ohtani’s reliance on Mizuhara to translate everything said to him in English gave the interpreter enormous influence over the two-way star, whom the Dodgers signed to a record $700-million contract during the offseason.

Mizuhara, 39, became Ohtani’s de facto gatekeeper, with even Ohtani’s closest representatives routinely going to Mizuhara to relay information to the ballplayer because of the language barrier. Through Ohtani’s six seasons with the Angels, Mizuhara gave no indication that he would violate the deep trust Ohtani displayed in him — although it was reported this week that the interpreter’s bio in the Angels media guide was rife with errors.

Ohtani said in his statement that Mizuhara was not truthful to the Dodgers or to his representatives when asked about inquiries from The Times and ESPN.

“Ippei has been telling everybody around that Ippei has been communicating with Shohei on all of this account — to my representatives, to the team — and that hasn’t been true,” Ohtani said.

Mizuhara did an about-face after the team meeting and one-on-one conversation with Ohtani, telling ESPN: “Obviously, this is all my fault, everything I’ve done. … I’m ready to face all the consequences,” and the spokesperson said Ohtani is the victim of “massive theft.”

Notably, Ohtani might have violated federal law if he paid off Mizuhara’s gambling debts, according to I. Nelson Rose, a gambling law scholar and professor emeritus at Whittier College.

“There is a federal statute that says, in effect, that if you help an illegal gambling operator collect debts, you are in the business of gambling,” Rose said. “Even if he was only doing this to help a friend, he certainly knew he was helping the bookmaker collect the debt.”

Rose, who has served as a government consultant to the gaming control boards and lotteries in several states, said federal laws pertaining to gambling are stringent because they are designed to help prosecute organized crime and money laundering.

Individuals who pay off debts aren’t often charged with a crime, he said, but the prospect of charges can persuade them to cooperate with authorities who are building cases against bookmaking operations.

Sports gambling is illegal in California, one of only 12 states that still considers the activity a crime.

Major League Baseball also strictly prohibits gambling by MLB players and other employees under Rule 21, which is posted in every clubhouse in English and Spanish and acknowledged in writing every year by every player. Betting on baseball in a game in which a player/employee participates is punishable by a lifetime ban, and betting on baseball in a game in which a player/employee does not participate is punishable by a one-year ban. Other illegal betting is subject to discipline at the discretion of the commissioner.

And, of course, the “massive theft” alleged by Ohtani’s representatives could result in criminal charges against Mizuhara.

This issue undoubtedly would have been raised had Ohtani fielded questions. It is unclear who — if anyone — handles his finances. Ohtani’s version of events implies that Mizuhara had access to at least one of the player’s bank accounts and was able to wire huge sums of money to a bookmaker without detection.

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