HomeGamblingShohei Ohtani interpreter fiasco is a menacing sign: Sports' gambling problem has...

Shohei Ohtani interpreter fiasco is a menacing sign: Sports’ gambling problem has arrived

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It’s not good.

Say what you will about the jarring news reports connecting Shohei Ohtani, the greatest baseball player in the world, maybe of all time, and his burgeoning fortune to multi-million dollar wire transfers to an alleged bookmaker under federal investigation.

Downplay it if it feels trivial. Joke about it if you must – and perhaps that’s the only way to cope with a story so fantastical that the more questions you ask, the more plausible even the most far-out theories become.

And if you’d simply like to Get Back To Baseball, knowing that at least for now, Ohtani might not have run afoul of Major League Baseball’s rules and regulations regarding sports betting, hunker down. Adjust your fantasy league team. Get some snacks. Do you.

Yet Wednesday’s stunning firing of Ippei Mizuhara, Ohtani’s translator, close friend and stateside confidante, will attach itself permanently to Ohtani’s phenomenal narrative, a story arc that until now was the stuff of dreams.

No, it’s not suddenly a nightmare. Ohtani awoke Thursday morning in Seoul, joined his teammates for their second game of the season and promptly lashed the first pitch he saw for a single. In his second at-bat, he nearly hit a three-run home run, settling for a sacrifice fly.

In two games against the San Diego Padres in South Korea, Ohtani banged out three hits and the Dodgers split a pair of games. On balance, not a bad way to begin the first season of a 10-year, $700 million contract.

Ohtani the ballplayer will be fine. Ohtani the brand, the myth come true, the greatest global ambassador the game could ever desire, may endure unscathed, too.

But until various questions are answered, an odd and unsettling tango, all of it dancing around a federal gambling probe, will unfold.

How did Mizuhara get in so deep with an alleged Orange County bookmaker that he needed to settle up a seven-figure debt?

Why did Mizuhara initially tell ESPN that Ohtani was not involved in sports gambling but agreed to settle Mizuhara’s debt, and then Ohtani’s camp pivoted to a narrative that Ohtani was the victim of “massive theft?”

Why was Ohtani’s name within wire-transfer data for two $500,000 transactions to Mathew Bowyer, the alleged Orange County bookmaker, as ESPN reported?

Are Ohtani and Mizuhara, last seen publicly chopping it up in the Dodgers dugout just hours before the story broke, still cool? If so, what does that say about the theft narrative?

At best for Team Ohtani, it’s the story of a foolhardy consigliere playing too loosely with his boss’s money. For now, there’s no indication it’s anything worse, and Major League Baseball has said it is not currently investigating Ohtani.

On a grander scale, for you, the sports consumer, it might feel like the slippery slope of gambling and sports fandom is giving way.

Ippei Mizuhara was longtime Ohtani interpreter

It’s way too tempting in journalism – heck, in life – to fall victim to the “three’s a trend” line of thinking. Once is random. Twice is coincidence. Three times is inextricably a paradigm shift, be it a pair of popular shoes spotted in the wild, or a rash of no-hitters or injuries from a hip-drop tackle, say.

Yet going on six years in this post-PASPA world, the blinking red lights of major league sports’ loving embrace of gambling can’t be ignored.

As the Ohtani news was racing around the globe from Orange County to L.A. to South Korea, Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff was telling truths about how cozy that sports gambling relationship has become – and how grimly insufferable it is for the characters on stage.

“I’ve had my own instances with some of the sports gamblers where they got my telephone number, were sending me crazy messages about where I live, my kids and all that stuff,” says Bickerstaff. “So it is a dangerous game and a fine line we’re walking, for sure. It brings added pressure. It brings distraction to the game that can be difficult for players, coaches, referees, everyone involved in it.

“We really have to be careful with how close we let it get to the game and the security of the people involved in it. It does carry a weight.”

In L.A., it got pretty close – a man who says he owed seven figures to an alleged bookmaker was in the Dodgers’ and Angels’ dugouts. Baseball’s greatest player emerged in a sweeping federal probe on illegal gambling.

The guardrails can’t make all that disappear – especially when the game’s participants skew younger and grew up in an environment where having action on a game is not only verboten, it’s incessantly encouraged.

That doesn’t mean all the action is dirty, or salacious, for the general public or the stars with nine-figure net worths. We’re going on three or four decades where the clubhouse March Madness pool adds a jolt of energy to the spring training slog – and if you want to know the stakes, just add a few zeroes to the $10 you might be playing with this March.

But the occasional pool or friendly wager – and sports’ leagues promotion of that via bracket challenges or the acknowledgement of fantasy sports popularity – is one thing. That teams and leagues are signing partnerships with seemingly any online book that asks is quite another.

You, sports consumer, have felt it in the invasive DraftKings and FanDuel ads. It’s hard to delineate where the line between entertainment and gaming ends. Maybe it’s already been erased.

The leagues will pocket the money, and their marketing officers will tell you that gambling greatly increases “fan engagement” and many other metrics vital to a sport’s viability in this atomized entertainment culture. Yet shifting the focus from making a buck instead of, you know, rooting for a favorite team or player, will have different and largely negative long-term effects.

Just ask Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen.

“Part of having social media nowadays, people are always worried about their parlays hitting,” he said Wednesday. “And you’ll get some threatening messages in your DMs.”

Says Bickerstaff: “There’s no doubt about it that it’s crossed the line. The amount of times we may have a 10-point lead and the spread is 11 and people are yelling at me to leave the guys in to cover the spread – it’s ridiculous.

“I understand the business of it. But it’s something that I think has gone too far.”

Earlier this month, former Jacksonville Jaguars finance employee Amit Patel received a 78-month sentence for pleading guilty to stealing $22 million from the club, most of it, he said, blown on sports wagering. This week, he detailed his tailspin in an interview with The Athletic, telling tales of “waking up in the middle of the night and you’re betting on Turkish women’s volleyball.”

Though online sports gambling isn’t legal in Florida, Patel nonetheless said he had a VIP rep at FanDuel, where he’d receive a 10% bonus for every $600,000 spent, along with travel perks, presumably to wherever he was placing his bets.

“Not everyone will get addicted to gambling,” Patel, now participating in Gamblers Anonymous meetings, told The Athletic. “But everyone can get addicted.”

A different sphere

Online gambling is outlawed in California, too, but Mizuhara told ESPN he had a DraftKings account, presumably through his travels, and thus thought his bets placed via Bowyer were legal.

“I want everyone to know Shohei had zero involvement in betting,” Mizuhara told ESPN. “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.”

That was Mizuhara’s story, but he did not stick to it. Hours later, Ohtani’s attorneys, without mentioning Mizuhara by name, announced the mass theft, and that they “are turning the matter over to authorities.”

Now, the most anticipated season in Dodger history – you might have read that a few times – begins under something resembling a cloud. Mizuhara was around all spring; Will Ireton is now the Dodgers interpreter for Ohtani and new rotation prize Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

A person familiar with Major League Baseball’s thinking says the league is gathering information, has not been contacted by prosecutors and not currently investigating Ohtani. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Ohtani refused comment Thursday, two club officials ensuring he depart the clubhouse unbothered. The Dodgers are “gathering information,” manager Dave Roberts saying he cannot comment on the matter, and it’s not hard to imagine the clubhouse reaction toggling between surprise and reticence.

To most, $4.5 million is a lifetime of money. Given Ohtani’s $30 million salary a year ago and an estimated $40 million in annual endorsement income, it’s roughly the equivalent of a person making $100,000 losing $6,000.

That’s another reminder that superstars exist in a different sphere. This week, we learned a lot more about one of the biggest, a man who’s always taken great pains to keep his private matters out of the public eye.

What we learn going forward may only minimally impact the public’s affection toward Ohtani. But the flawless superstar now has a curious matter tailing him, with plenty riding on whether the next twists are massive or minimal.

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