Opening Day: A new season and a dark shadow

March 31, 2024 6:30 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports
March 31, 2024 6:30 AM
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports

Baseball season is here. Opening day was Thursday, except for those two games in Korea that really don’t count.

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The Los Angeles Dodgers opened with a four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Dodgers are expected to do well this season; after all, they have the most expensive lineup in the National League. The big bucks have yet to produce a World Series championship, but this year may be the year, with their three hot-shot hard-hitting superstars: Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, and Shohei Ohtani.

The baseball season does draw some attention from the betting world, but nothing compared to football and basketball. In fact, baseball is sort of the off season for sports betting and by the end of the summer, bettors will be wagering less than half the handle in January, February, and March. However, out of the blue, no pun intended, a gambling narrative erupted. It has to do with Shohei Ohtani. The story broke while the Dodgers were in Korea playing the San Diego Padres. The Dodgers shocked the baseball world by firing Ohtani’s interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. The team said Mizuhara had been gambling with an illegal bookmaker, using Ohtani’s bank account to pay his debts.

Shohei Ohtani is a baseball player writ large. As a child in Japan, Ohtani was known as a baseball boy.” The label is applied to boys who think only about baseball. They carry a ball and glove with them at all times; they practice whenever there is an opportunity; nothing is more important than baseball, nothing. It worked. Ohtani became a true baseball player, the best from Japan and by some accounts, the best baseball player ever. Playing at all levels in Japan, he set records and developed a massive fan base.

In 2018, he began playing for the Los Angeles Angels. In December 2023, he signed a $700 million contract with the Dodgers, the largest sports contract ever signed in this country. Although he has been playing baseball in the United States for six years, he never speaks English in public or private.

Enter Ippei Mizuhara, the interpreter. Mizuhara became almost an alter ego for Shohei. One was rarely seen without the other. Mizuhara was the voice of Ohtani, but he did more. He was the best friend, coach, valet, traveling companion, an all-around Boy Friday. Ohtani and Mizuhara were inseparable — until, that is, they were separated. 

That is what made the story so shocking. Ohtani, with a new interpreter, met with the press and denied any knowledge of Mizuhara’s gambling or use of his bank account. Shohei further denied that he ever made a bet, especially not with an illegal bookie and never on baseball. There was a lot in the denial to cause doubt. The case is under investigation by Major League Baseball. The bookie Mathew Bowyer was already under investigation by the FBI. The investigations are casting a shadow over the new baseball season.

After the news conference, Shohei Ohtani, the baseball boy, also called Shotime, did what a baseball boy does: He went to the ballpark and worked on his skills. According to the legend, he is still as bent on becoming the best baseball player and that requires a very singular focus. Which of course is part of the problem, Ohtani has to devote his time to baseball. All of life’s little tasks have to be delegated. It now appears that Mizuhara was the wrong person to be given those tasks, as well as Ohtani’s trust and friendship. Shohei must feel very hurt, betrayed, and isolated. His voice and other persona are gone.

It is a sad tale for Shohei Ohtani. It is also a sad tale for baseball and sports betting. What happens if the “Perfect Man” (another of the names by which Ohtani is known in Japan) is found to have been betting? Even worse, suppose the investigation finds he bet on baseball, even his own team, just like Pete Rose? It is not as far-fetched as it sounds, but by all accounts, Ohtani, like Rose, is extremely confident and believes he will win. If true, it would result in the biggest scandal to hit baseball since 1918. The waves of backlash would certainly wash up on the shores of Congress. The precedent for that has already arrived.

Earlier in the month, New York Representative Paul Tonko announced he was planning to introduce The SAFE (Supporting Affordability and Fairness with Every) Bet Act. Its purpose is to create a federal ban on sports betting. He recognizes that the horse is already out of the barn and proposes to grant exceptions to states that have already legalized sports betting. Those exceptions would last for three years and require renewal. Undoubtedly, it would also include an exceptions fee and a cut of the states’ tax revenue from sports betting. Tonko is from New York, so he is used to seeing huge tax numbers, something between $50 million and $100 million a month in tax revenue.

Nelson Rose has long warned the gaming industry that its legal status relies on trust. Once the trust is gone, Rose predicts that the wave of legalization will reverse itself and become a wave of prohibition. That prediction seemed pretty far-fetched, but with the Ohtani-Mizuhara story, we are getting a glimpse of a possible scandal big enough to bring down Ohtani, the Dodgers, and sports betting. It won’t happen, but it is casting a dark shadow on the new baseball season and sports betting.