The stunning scandal swirling around baseball’s biggest star


SEOUL — On Thursday night, an ocean away from Dodger Stadium, Shohei Ohtani did something he had never done in his storied, relentlessly pristine MLB career.

Roughly 12 hours after news broke that the Los Angeles Dodgers had fired Ohtani’s longtime friend and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara amid allegations that Mizuhara stole millions from his friend to cover gambling debts, Ohtani jogged onto a baseball field enveloped by scandal.

By the time he stepped onto the turf at Gocheok Sky Dome, a few things were clear: First, the Dodgers terminated Mizuhara after Wednesday night’s game, ending a partnership with Ohtani that began in 2013 during Ohtani’s days with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. Second, Ohtani’s representatives claimed he was a victim of “massive theft,” though by whom they wouldn’t say.

Reports in the Los Angeles Times and ESPN connected some of the dots, reporting that Mizuhara had accumulated millions in gambling debt. But what wasn’t clear, as of game time in Seoul — where the Dodgers were facing the San Diego Padres in a season-opening global showcase of the sport — is whether Ohtani knew about the debt and whether he willfully loaned Mizuhara money to cover it. Mizuhara initially told ESPN in an interview that Ohtani did know and covered the debt before Ohtani’s representatives disputed that narrative and suggested it was, instead, theft.

The remaining murkiness meant that, on the field before Thursday’s game, snippets of hushed conversation could be heard in English and Spanish and Japanese and Korean — conversations between reporters and team officials and anyone with a pulse, really — about exactly how much Ohtani knew and when he knew it or exactly how involved he might have been. To be clear, no one — including Mizuhara — has alleged any gambling on Ohtani’s part. But no one is more financially important to his team and MLB than Ohtani, either.

Sports betting is legal in 38 states, but it is not legal in California, where Ohtani has played his entire major league career. But offshore sports betting, which operates in a murky area, does not require upfront payment for bets, relying instead on credit.

Meanwhile, MLB’s collective bargaining agreement with the players union makes clear that players are not allowed to bet on baseball in any form, at any level, including in the form of fantasy sports. Mizuhara told ESPN he knew this and did not bet on baseball. But it also makes clear that players are allowed to place legal bets on other sports, though “illegal bets on any sport or event, including bets placed with illegal bookmakers or illegal offshore sports betting websites or applications” are prohibited.

Whatever its specifics, the scandal was as palpable Thursday afternoon as it was invisible. Where photographers once lined up to shoot the arrival of team buses, fences stood instead. Security did not let them film player arrivals Thursday. No one said exactly why. No one really had to.

The Dodgers’ clubhouse, too, was marked more by who was not there than who was. A few players wandered in and out, glancing at reporters, as if wondering whether someone might approach. Few hung around for long. At one point there were 30 reporters and no players in the clubhouse, a noteworthy ratio even for a veteran team such as the Dodgers adept at making itself scarce. And at Ohtani’s locker sat a backpack and a massive water bottle, evidence Ohtani was indeed at the stadium.

Absent Ohtani, Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts was left to answer questions being asked across two continents. He said he couldn’t.

“I can’t say anything,” Roberts said when asked about his reaction to Mizuhara’s firing. He also said he couldn’t comment on what Mizuhara said to the Dodgers after his termination. ESPN had reported Mizuhara addressed the Dodgers and took responsibility for the scandal.

“Anything with that, the meeting, I can’t comment,” Roberts said. “I’m sorry.”

Roberts did say that he wasn’t worried about distraction for Ohtani and that Ohtani was in a hitters meeting at the time of his news conference. He said the Dodgers did not consider sitting their superstar, who was in the lineup hitting second, as he was in Wednesday night’s opener.

But unlike Wednesday, Ohtani did not take the field to stretch with his teammates before batting practice. In fact, he never emerged for warmups at all, though that isn’t a total departure from the norm: Ohtani rarely takes batting practice on the field before games, preferring to hit off a machine in the cages. When he jogged out for introductions — to the usual, undaunted roar — Ohtani wore a taut smile. He hit the first pitch he saw into right for a line-drive single. Business as usual. Nothing to see here.

And in some ways, it was: Fans in Ohtani jerseys, or even full uniform, posed for pictures outside the stadium. Signs reading “Goatani” or “Ohtani Hit It Here” were visible in the stands. The crowd still roared every time it found a reason. Ohtani’s legacy changed forever Thursday. But that does not mean it was tarnished. Within an hour of the news breaking, inboxes of Dodgers staff were filled with applications to serve as his interpreter.

The Dodgers’ manager of performance operations, Will Ireton, filled that role Thursday night. He had to make his debut early: Mizuhara had been scheduled to serve as Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s in-game interpreter, so Ireton joined pitching coach Mark Prior for a mound visit as Yamamoto, the 25-year-old Japanese ace who signed with the Dodgers this offseason, struggled through a five-run nightmare of a first inning. On a normal night, Yamamoto’s struggles might have been the talk of the sport, from Seoul to Tokyo to Los Angeles and beyond. But this was no normal night.

And it ended up being no normal game, either. The evening morphed into a 15-11 marathon in which the Dodgers fell behind by seven and closed the gap to one before the Padres pulled away. In the course of that journey, Ohtani hit three deep flyballs that looked as if they might be homers, all of which fell short, two of which fell less than a meter (as they say in South Korea) short of the wall.

Ohtani also came to the plate with a chance to tie the game in the eighth but grounded out harmlessly to first to end the Dodgers’ final rally. Good thing, too: Normally, if players homer or provide game-tying hits, they address the media afterward. But as it happened, Ohtani did not meet the usual baseball criteria for a postgame interview.

Still, since he had not surfaced before the game, two dozen or so American, Japanese and Korean reporters circled around his locker anyway as he packed his bag and pulled on the sweatsuit all the Dodgers wore on their flight back to the United States. As he did so, two members of the team’s media relations staff stood with their backs to him, facing outward, telling any reporters who approached that Ohtani would not be speaking.

Thinking it might be best if Ohtani decided that for himself, reporters asked him whether he had a moment to speak as he turned and headed out of the clubhouse. Dodgers staffers instead requested they clear the way, and Ohtani walked out of the room, saying a Japanese phrase reporters translated as “have a good night” as he departed.

“I hope the situation — I hope Sho is good,” teammate Mookie Betts said when asked about how the situation affected his team Thursday. “At the end of the day, we have to take care of our jobs. . . . No matter what cards we’re dealt, we’ve got to go play ’em.”

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