April 16, 2024

It still doesn’t feel right.

It still doesn’t make sense.

No matter how much Shohei Ohtani and his advisors attempt to clean it up, something in all this gambling garbage still stinks.

When a smiling Ohtani strides on to the Dodger Stadium field for their home opener Thursday, I want to believe.

I want to believe the game’s greatest player is as pure as his image.

I want to believe the beloved global superstar is as honorable as he seems.

I want to believe the legendary Ohtani magic, for which the Dodgers just paid $700 million, is real.

But I just can’t. Not completely. Not yet. Maybe one day, but not now.

The gambling controversy that has engulfed Ohtani in the past week has taken too many weird twists and wrong turns for me to feel completely confident in its ultimate destination.

This could be nothing. This could be everything. So much is still unknown. So much is still so confusing. Leak by agonizing leak, the uncertainty chips away at the aura of an icon who was once thought to be untouchable.

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani warms up before a spring training game against the Angels at Angels Stadium Tuesday.

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani warms up before a spring training game against the Angels at Angels Stadium Tuesday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles)

The doubt is ugly. The disbelief is unsettling. I don’t feel great about writing this. I’m guessing many Dodgers fans aren’t feeling so great about living it.

Does Shohei Ohtani have a gambling problem, or a money management problem, or neither, or both?

Is Shohei Ohtani devious enough to throw his closest colleague under the bus to save himself, or was he simply naive enough to allow that colleague to fleece him for millions?

Ohtani has spoken, but has taken no questions.

The season has started, but this isn’t ending.

There remains a cloud over Ohtani’s previously pristine presence, and as much as everyone wants to believe otherwise, it’s not dissipating anytime soon.

The storm hit last week when Ohtani’s name was linked to a federal investigation into illegal sports gambling. The Times reported his name appeared on nine wire transfers of $500,000 each, with the money allegedly going to suspected Orange County bookmaker Mathew Bowyer.

In an interview with ESPN that was arranged by an Ohtani spokesman, Ohtani’s longtime translator Ippei Mizuhara said that Ohtani sent the money to cover Mizuhara’s gambling debts. The spokesman even gave ESPN a quote from Ohtani in which he said he knew about the payments.

The story was repeated by Mizuhara and club executives to the entire Dodger team during a meeting in the Dodgers’ clubhouse in Seoul after their opening night win over the San Diego Padres.

Early the next morning, however, Ohtani’s representatives completely changed course, claiming that Ohtani was unaware of the transfers and accusing Mizuhara of a “massive theft.”

Mizuhara was promptly fired by the Dodgers, and, at a Monday afternoon news conference during which he did not take questions, Ohtani repeated the claim that he was fleeced.

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara participate in spring training workouts in Phoenix on Feb. 18.

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, left, participate in spring training workouts in Phoenix on Feb. 18.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“He was stealing money from my bank account…he was lying to everyone,” Ohtani said in Japanese, later adding, “I of course have never had anything to do with sports betting and I absolutely have never sent money to a bookmaker. Honestly, I don’t think shock is the right word. I’ve spent the last week in something beyond that, which I can’t express in words. It’s hard to put that into words right now.”

I can put it into several words.

I am queasy with the notion that Mizuhara could mastermind a heist of at least $4.5 million without Ohtani or his accountants or his bankers or somebody noticing the money was missing.

I am skeptical at the idea that any bookie would extend $4.5 million in credit to an ordinary gambler, and then collect that money without confirming its source to ensure that the money was not being stolen.

Above all, I am incredulous at the notion Mizuhara could give a completely plausible Ohtani-approved explanation of the payments in one interview, then, seemingly hours later, be called a liar and accused of theft by the same Ohtani representatives.

It doesn’t add up. Furthermore, it’s amazing that Ohtani’s crisis management teams — some of the same people who represented the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Danny Masterson — would not have realized it doesn’t add up.

By the way, why does Ohtani still employ agent Nez Balelo? If Ohtani truly felt he had been robbed by his interpreter and was truly unaware of the missing money, he should have already fired the guy who is paid to protect him, no? Hmmm.

Somebody is lying somewhere. Somebody is hiding something. I don’t know who is doing what, and I’m surely not alone.

Although sports gambling is still illegal in California, it’s one of only 12 states where it’s still a crime and that doesn’t seem to be the biggest issue here.

The biggest concern is that a player who is essentially a minority owner of the Dodgers has been linked to payments to an illegal bookmaking operation totaling at least $4.5 million amid swirls of changing narratives and conflicting stories.

When your name is associated with that much cloaked money in that sort of rutted environment, what else is involved? How many different nasty elements can seep through the cracks and engulf you in your recklessness? If your highest paid player is that careless with $4.5 million, how much can you trust him to be the caretaker of your 4 million fans?

Shohei Ohtani bats during the Dodgers' spring training game against the Angels at Dodger Stadium on Monday.

Shohei Ohtani bats during the Dodgers’ spring training game against the Angels at Dodger Stadium on Monday.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

It’s interesting that when Major League Baseball last week announced its investigation into the matter, it cited, “allegations involving Shohei Ohtani and Ippei Mizuhara.”

Read that again. The statement didn’t just mention Mizuhara. It cited both of them.

Neither man has been charged with a crime. Ohtani has not been accused of placing any bets, on baseball or otherwise, and in his prepared statement he said he has, “never bet on anything or bet for anyone on a sporting event or asked someone to bet for me.”

Yet Mizuhara is ruined, and Ohtani is tainted, and it could be months before the truth finally emerges.

There are no winners here. There is only a loss of innocence, a summer of purgatory and the sad cynicism surrounding a man previously known in Japan as, kanpeki no hito.

“The perfect person.”

Maybe one day, but not now.

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