Shohei Ohtani stands alone in spotlight amid gambling scandal


SHOHEI OHTANI WALKED from the left-field corner to the right-field corner of Dodger Stadium on Sunday afternoon to have a festive conversation with a group of his old Angels teammates, and the news of it was that he did it alone. Before Ippei Mizuhara was fired last week and accused Monday by Ohtani of stealing $4.5 million from the Dodgers star to pay off Mizuhara’s gambling debt to a sports bookie under federal investigation, the mere idea of Ohtani covering that much ground and spending that much time on a baseball field without Mizuhara would have been incomprehensible.

It’s difficult to imagine Ohtani without Mizuhara. Ohtani appears somehow diminished without his ever-present subordinate: smaller, less imposing, as if he needed Mizuhara’s constant presence to assume his full stature. There was a certain choreography involved in getting it just right. Mizuhara almost always followed about four steps behind Ohtani, almost always wearing Ohtani’s backpack and carrying Ohtani’s water bottle, as if he needed to remain close enough to ward off any intrusion but far enough away to allow the great man’s aura to breathe.

Through six years in the big leagues, through two MVPs with the Angels and the historic two-way greatness, up to the record 10-year, $700 million contract he signed with the Dodgers, Ohtani has always been a man apart, with one exception: Mizuhara. Other players have interpreters, but only Ohtani had an interpreter who worked as a trainer and a coach and a valet and a best friend and a bellman in addition to translating his interactions with the media.

Separateness has always been part of the Ohtani mystique. He has been, in many ways, an independent contractor, allowed to conduct his unique business as a solo act within the broad parameters of a team, wearing his talent as a suit of armor. He was always too busy, too regimented, too locked in, to be subject to the mundane currents of the other 25 men on the roster. He was constantly preparing to do something nobody had ever done, and he, along with Mizuhara, was afforded the time and space to do it on his own terms.

Each was so dependent upon the other that it seems unthinkable that the relationship could have been parasitic. “To summarize how I’m feeling right now, I’m just beyond shock,” Ohtani said during an appearance before the media Monday. “It’s really hard to verbalize how I’m feeling at this point.” By now everyone knows the prevailing narrative: Ohtani alleges that Mizuhara stole $4.5 million to pay off his gambling debts, a story Mizuhara seemed to adopt only after telling ESPN that Ohtani authorized and physically completed the payments that would get his friend out of the hole. Regardless of Ohtani’s level of involvement, the truth is stark, and alarming for the Dodgers and baseball: The name of baseball’s biggest star — the highest-paid athlete in the history of North American sports — is on bank transfers, totaling millions, sent from his account to Mathew Bowyer, a Southern California bookmaker under federal investigation.

Mizuhara was part of the Ohtani mystique; instead of reducing Ohtani’s separateness, he italicized it. Ohtani was so separate, so different, that he had someone constantly at his side, handling his current needs and predicting his next, the one man capable of sensing every subtle change in vibration. In the process, Mizuhara attained a level of celebrity himself: the glory of the adjacent. With Ohtani nearly untouchable and unreachable, this spring the Dodgers fielded multiple interview requests for Mizuhara before the scandal; outlets from Japan and the U.S. were interested in telling the Mizuhara story, no doubt hoping his proximity to Ohtani would lend a greater understanding of baseball’s central character.

Ohtani and Mizuhara spent so much time together that last summer I began several conversations with Angels players by asking them a question that was only partly tongue-in-cheek: Did they think Ohtani and Mizuhara ever got sick of each other? Most laughed, and many answered with some version of, “I’ve often wondered the same thing.” None of them could remember seeing any signs of strain. And last June Phil Nevin, then the Angels manager, told me: “I don’t know what Shohei’s doing every day at the ballpark. I leave that to him.”

That, and everything else, was left to Ohtani and his ever-present confidant. “Interpreter” was never an adequate word to describe Mizuhara, who toted Ohtani’s training tools and to-the-second workout schedule in the backpack. Ohtani’s rhythms were Mizuhara’s rhythms. They occupied the same locker, ate at the same table in the players’ lounge, sat on the same five feet of bench in every dugout. Until Ohtani got his driver’s license last season, Mizuhara drove the two of them to the ballpark every day. Nobody knew if they lived together, but his Angels teammates assumed they did. From the outside, it appeared that Mizuhara cleared away every menial task and potential obstacle; the great one would worry only about his game. Mizuhara’s constant presence was proof of Ohtani’s singular genius, so much so that it is jarring to see him, now, walk alone.

PRIVACY IS A famous person entering a favorite restaurant through the back door. What Ohtani practices feels like something else, something that requires constant vigilance and regular upkeep. He announced his marriage on Instagram during spring training — despite no teammate with the Angels or Dodgers knowing he even had a girlfriend. He adorned the post with a photograph of his dog.

Any expectation that Ohtani would conduct his business more openly as a Dodger was gone before he agreed to his $700 million deal, when his representatives gave the team approximately one minute of advance notice before announcing he was signing. That was one minute more than he gave the Dodgers before the marriage announcement. On Feb. 29, a member of the team’s media relations staff woke up early and saw Ohtani’s Instagram post. The employee immediately sent it out to everyone else in the department. They learned her identity — former Japanese professional basketball player Mamiko Tanaka — along with the rest of us.

There is a heaviness to Ohtani, perhaps from the weight of projecting a nation’s culture and values into the world, the culture and values of a nation that cares deeply about both. Someone who has never watched an inning of baseball would know there is something different about him, just by watching the confidence he exudes walking to the batter’s box. His frame and bearing — 6-foot-5, eternally upright — allow him to walk through a crowd and fix his gaze just over the top of almost everyone’s head. It has served him well as a means of practiced avoidance. Everyone is there; no one is there.

With the help of his agent, Nez Balelo, Ohtani is hypervigilant in walling himself off from a prying public. He is in every Japanese newspaper every day, on nearly every newscast, a man who, especially now, cannot be overcovered anywhere baseball is played. Given that context, his ability to remain not only private but secluded feels unprecedented.

The Dodgers have sent out flares suggesting it would be different. At the beginning of spring training, with Ohtani’s availability as a hitter still in doubt after his offseason Tommy John-ish surgery — his professed ignorance of the actual procedure another example of exceeding the bounds of normal ballplayer privacy — Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was asked if Ohtani’s spring timeline would be strictly his decision.

“No, there’s a group,” Roberts said, no doubt seeing where this was headed. “Coaching staff, hitting staff, training staff, performance staff will all get together and figure out the best day for him to start.”

Ohtani partakes in the outward displays of baseball bro-hood, like wearing the kabuto helmet while coursing through the tunnel of teammates in the dugout after a home run while with the Angels. But for the most part he hung out with Mizuhara, obsessed over his diet, slept as much as possible and worked on his game.

He was, it seemed, the perfect employee, an international icon of whom Nevin says, “He wakes up every morning trying to figure out how he can be the best baseball player on the planet.” Even at $700 million, nearly all of it deferred, he appeared to be a risk-free investment. His status in Japan assures the Dodgers of countless millions in sponsorships, and judging by the scene at spring training, enough No. 17 jerseys have been sold to pay off a good part of his deal.

But now Major League Baseball is investigating Ohtani and Mizuhara over the matter, and Mizuhara’s changing stories only heighten the intrigue. Whichever scenario turns out to be true, an infinite number of questions linger. To this point, the only tangible fallout is Mizuhara’s removal from Ohtani’s orbit, a massive disruption to Ohtani’s cherished routine.

His old Angels teammates say they can’t believe either side of it — that Ohtani would gamble, that Mizuhara would steal — while in the process revealing how little they really knew about Ohtani. He famously kept to a certain asceticism, going from the hotel to the ballpark and back to the hotel. It seemed to be working perfectly, until now.

Angels closer Carlos Estevez was the main target of Ohtani’s cross-field excursion on Sunday afternoon. The two were friends as teammates, and they spent nearly 10 minutes chatting in the right-field corner. Estevez said he texted Ohtani to congratulate him on his new contract but otherwise hasn’t been in touch. Asked about Ohtani’s current predicament, Estevez said, “I’d rather not comment on that. We’ve still got to see. We’ve got to just wait for the truth to come out.”

In the Dodgers’ clubhouse, players politely waved off questions about Ohtani and Mizuhara. Reliever Alex Vesia said, “I feel like it’s none of my business.”

THE ANGELS ALWAYS felt temporary, a sort of practice team for Ohtani to display his powers before moving on. What’s next? was the nagging question for six years, following him around like a roomful of reporters. He signed with the Angels, a surprising choice, to ensure he could pursue his goal of proving himself as a hitter and a starting pitcher. It seemed wild — maybe even irresponsible — at the time, with many in baseball suggesting he would eventually have to choose one or the other. Instead, Ohtani reconfigured our idea of what a baseball player can be. Of his six seasons (he didn’t pitch in 2019 after his first Tommy John surgery), two of them — 2021 and 2023 — are among the best seasons in baseball history.

And so it feels as if his career has been a prolonged prelude to this moment, when he would not only cash in historically but play for a team that promises the opportunity for multiple World Series rings. Not surprisingly, what’s next is 30 miles up the road in Los Angeles, to the team with the most stars — four MVPs! — and the most attention. In terms of psychic distance, those 30 miles feel like thousands.

The Dodgers were swept by the Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series last October, and the front office set out to assure postseason failure like that — and like many seasons around the COVID-shortened 2020 title — not only wouldn’t but couldn’t happen again. Team president Andrew Friedman set out to fail-proof their roster, adding Ohtani and Teoscar Hernandez and Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow. Roberts spoke the obvious, but still unexpected, when he said this team should win a championship. The offseason group texts between players tried to keep up with the big-name acquisitions. “I wanted to come back here from the beginning,” says reliever Ryan Brasier, who re-signed just before spring training. “But I was watching these names pop up, one after another, and it was crazy. I don’t think there’s anybody who wouldn’t want to be on this team.”

And yet his new teammates have no stories about Ohtani, no anecdotes about spring training dinners or off-the-field outings. Ohtani is temporarily free of his two-way duties as he rehabilitates from his elbow surgery and focuses exclusively on hitting. He is now, quite abruptly, one of the least busy players in baseball. The pitchers say he hangs out with the hitters now, and they’re sure to have more to report once he can resume pitching. The hitters say he just got here and is so locked into his own routine that it’s difficult to break through. Meanwhile, Yamamoto is standing at Joe Kelly’s locker, springy and smiling, and they’re doing the best they can to re-create the round of golf they played the day before. Kelly tells Yamamoto he was excellent on the front nine but things got away from him after that, and they’re laughing and pantomiming their swings and promising to play another day.

At the spring training complex, Ohtani was given a locker near the main door to the clubhouse, one to the left of Mookie Betts and one to the right of Yamamoto. Nearly $1.4 billion worth of investment occupying roughly 36 square feet of floor space.

This is what everything has been leading toward: this uniform, this corner of the room, these expectations.

THE FIRST DODGER to enter into the Ohtani force field could very well have been relief pitcher J.P. Feyereisen. He’s just a guy trying to work his way back from shoulder surgery that kept him out the entire 2023 season, and early in spring training he was throwing some live batting practice on a back field at Camelback Ranch.

One of the hitters, Ohtani, ran up a 3-2 count before hitting a home run on a soggy get-it-over fastball. Feyereisen thought nothing of it, just getting his work in on a nice spring day, until that day’s workout ended and he went back to his locker.

Feyereisen, who has since been sent to the minors, stopped. “Oh, my god,” he said. There were at least 50 reporters and camera operators waiting for him, crowding his shoes. They wanted to know what pitch he threw, whether he expected it to leave the yard, what it felt like, what he thought of Ohtani’s swing, whether he had ever seen such a thing.

“Ah, just classic,” Feyereisen said later. “Welcome to the new world. The entire media group was clumped around my locker, asking me, ‘What was it like giving up a homer to Ohtani?’ I mean, what could I say? It was the same as it is giving up a homer to anyone else, but I knew that’s not what anybody wanted to hear. He’s hit more than one, you know, and I guarantee you he’s hit better pitches.”

It’s been observed over and over, the number of reporters following Ohtani around in search of the tiniest morsels, but it remains impressive. Japanese photographers stationed themselves at the entrance to the players’ parking lot every morning this spring, waiting to get the same photo — Ohtani driving, Mizuhara in the passenger seat — they got the day before and will get the day after. There was some at least some mystery, however: Ohtani arrived in a different new Porsche — it’s one of his endorsement deals in Japan — every four or five days before settling in with a silver Carrera for the final weeks in Arizona.

“It’s crazy they’re all here every day,” one Dodger said of the Japanese media, asking that he not be identified by name. “Because he never talks to them.”

Mizuhara’s firing and the conflicting stories swelled the crowd. Ohtani is no longer just a baseball story; national news outlets from two countries arrived to cover this most unexpected of stories. Close to 100 reporters — no cameras allowed — stood shoulder to shoulder in the team’s interview room on Monday to listen to Ohtani deliver his statement and leave the room without taking questions.

At the beginning of spring training, Roberts, perhaps jokingly, nominated outfielder Jason Heyward to be the one on whom reporters could rely to contextualize Ohtani’s achievements when Ohtani chooses not to — a designated speaker of sorts. It was a nod to Heyward’s experience and statesmanship, but it also served to emphasize Ohtani’s lack of availability. In Anaheim, the guys speaking for Ohtani were Zach Neto, Taylor Ward and Logan O’Hoppe. When it’s a team filled with All-Stars and three other MVPs, maybe the most accomplished collection of talent in the past several decades, it’s a tougher sell.

He seldom speaks for himself. “I know,” catcher Will Smith said during spring training. Then, perhaps thinking that it sounded harsh, he quickly said, “And I’m fine with it.”

Even before there was a hint of a gambling scandal, Ohtani’s interviews could take the form of a flash mob — surprising, crowded, here and then not. They are often negotiated. The Dodgers held discussions with Balelo, Ohtani’s agent, to arrange for Ohtani to appear at a news conference in South Korea when the team arrived for the weeklong trip culminating in the season-opening miniseries against the Padres. The negotiations for such a simple request began weeks before the trip.

With the Angels, Ohtani normally spoke only after his starts on the mound. Since he won’t be pitching this season, the Dodgers suggested he address reporters once a week, a reasonable request of an employee of his stature. Now, with the questions expected to be more pointed, more likely to prick at his previously impenetrable bubble, it’s unclear when we’ll hear from him again.

THE ANGELS’ CLUBHOUSE early on a Saturday morning in Tempe feels a little like a bus station: a few players sprawled in front of their lockers, no music, a general vibe of inertia. Mike Trout is sitting at his locker, speaking quietly on his phone. The three reporters who now cover the team stand at one end of the room. Six years ago Ohtani’s presence changed everything, immediately, and his absence changed it back just as fast.

For six seasons the players who wore this uniform were constantly asked to contextualize Ohtani’s achievements. They were probed for the smallest tidbits on his personality or work ethic or willingness to engage with his teammates. Given the team’s situation — perennially meh — Ohtani brought attention that otherwise would have stayed away, as it does now.

“It’s going to be different here without him,” Angels starting pitcher Griffin Canning says. “I can’t say easier per se, because of what a great player he is. But when you’re trying to turn a culture around and get the identity we want, I think a little less attention might benefit us.”

No detail is ever too small, and I know because I sought out even the most microscopic hints that might lead to a trail that could possibly illuminate his achievements. (I’ve never covered anyone more and known less.) This spring, it made headlines when Ohtani carried a glove onto the practice field. Ohtani has a fielder’s glove! What does it mean? During a spring training game against the Reds, Ohtani faced Nick Martinez and popped up to short left field. It would be hard to find a more insignificant moment, but several Japanese reporters began debating the type of pitch Martinez threw to induce the popup. It was off-speed, everyone agreed, but what flavor? After several urgent exchanges, they came to an agreement: a changeup.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a relief to not have to face those questions,” Angels pitcher Reid Detmers says. “There was stuff other teams wouldn’t have to worry about. When he’s around, it’s a good thing, obviously, but there is a little bit more distraction. A lot more media around. And obviously, when something happened, like if he got hurt, other people would have to answer and give their opinion on it. We’re professional athletes; we’re used to it. I would say it’s a little bit quieter around here now.”

Detmers speaks carefully, repeatedly interrupting himself to clarify or change course or choose the right word. Detmers wants to be clear that he is speaking about two different things: Ohtani and post-Ohtani. The post-Ohtani world — a united front with a fresh path forward — should not be viewed as a negative reflection on Ohtani. It seems the situation is just as hard to contextualize now as it was before.

OHTANI’S LOCKER AT Dodger Stadium is next to a curtain separating the clubhouse from the bathroom. It’s three hours before the first game of the Freeway Series against the Angels, the first day Ohtani has been in uniform in the United States since the gambling scandal broke in South Korea, and security guards move about the room, posting and reposting, going from one end of the clubhouse to the other, dipping in and out of the curtain, talking to each other through their hands. There is a half-drunk bottle of orange juice in Ohtani’s locker, surrounded by unopened packs of batting gloves and his uniform.

One of the televisions hanging from the ceiling is showing the official results from Aqueduct on “America’s Day at the Races.” That’s Money paid out 7.20, 4.20 and 3.00 in the sixth race. At 12:48 p.m., Ohtani appears, walking quickly to his locker and turning, his back to the room. He looks startled when he asked if he would answer a few questions. He stops, seems to think about it, and then says, “Tomorrow.”

When tomorrow comes, Ohtani walks into the interview room, followed by Roberts and Stan Kasten and nearly every high-ranking member of the Dodgers organization. Kelly is the lone player to stand to Ohtani’s left and listen to him say, “On a personal note, I’m very sad and shocked that someone I trusted has done this.”

Ohtani lays out Mizuhara’s alleged deceit while staring at the camera hanging from the ceiling near the back of the room. He says he didn’t know about Mizuhara’s gambling; he didn’t knowingly pay off his debts; he has never gambled on sports or asked someone to do so on his behalf; he is assisting in whatever investigations are taking place.

“Now I’m looking forward to focusing on the season,” he says. “I’m glad we had this opportunity to talk, and I’m sure there will be continuing investigations going forward.”

With that, he stands up and walks out of the room, followed again by the long tail of Dodgers executives. Fewer than 20 minutes later, he is on the field, playing catch in short left field. It is the first day he is cleared to throw as part of his elbow rehabilitation, and he is eager to start the process of getting back to what defines him. He stands about 60 feet from his throwing partner, alone.

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