April 14, 2024

Scandal? What scandal?

Shohei Ohtani might as well have been talking about a television show he watched the night before or his commute to Dodger Stadium in the morning.

He was calm, even welcoming, when I approached him on Thursday before the Dodgers’ 7-1 home-opening victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ohtani nodded when I mentioned the unanswered questions that remained after he publicly accused former interpreter Ippei Mizuhara three days earlier of stealing money from him to settle gambling debts.

“I said all I could say at this point,” Ohtani said in Japanese.

Did he know how Mizuhara gained access to his bank account or how millions of dollars in wire transfers went unnoticed?

“It’s under investigation,” Ohtani said, “so I can’t say anything.”

Ohtani said he knew who was investigating the alleged theft — “Of course,” he said — but declined to identify the entity.

He maintained a casual tone of voice. He never broke eye contact. He didn’t look or sound nervous.

Politely passing on a chance to help the public make sense of a story that still doesn’t add up, Ohtani bowed and slipped out of the room.

My mother is Japanese, so I speak his language and am familiar with his culture, but I’ll refrain from interpreting his carefree demeanor here. As I wrote the other day, the extreme measures he’s taken to maintain privacy have made him a mystery to virtually everyone in his orbit, including his teammates. Any attempt to speculate on his behavior wouldn’t even count as educated guesswork.

What can be said without hesitation is that however money from Ohtani’s account was moved into that of an alleged illegal bookmaker, Ohtani is acting as if he’s unaffected.

Former Angels manager Phil Nevin used to call Ohtani the most mentally strong player he had ever been around, and how else could Ohtani be described after what he did on Thursday?

In his first home opener at Dodger Stadium, Ohtani was two for three with a double, a walk and a run scored. His fifth-inning single registered an exit velocity of 113.0 mph, the hardest-hit ball by a Dodger since 2021.

Scandal? What scandal?

Shohei Ohtani is introduced before the Dodgers' home opener against the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday.

Shohei Ohtani is introduced before the Dodgers’ home opener against the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Watching Ohtani banter with his teammates on the bench in the exhibition Freeway Series against the Angels earlier in the week, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sensed he would be unaffected by the controversy.

“He’s handled it with flying colors,” Roberts said. “I just don’t think it’s going to affect performance. I really don’t.”

Shortly after Ryan Yarbrough registered the final out, Ohtani slipped on a headset for an interview with NHK, which televised the game in Japan.

“I think I’m seeing the ball well, and I was able to go in relatively calm,” Ohtani told the station.

Ohtani, who spoke only after games he pitched when he played for the Angels, addressed the remaining press contingent in the clubhouse. With 50 to 100 reporters rushing in to hear what he said, several players complained about how crowded the locker room was. About the only person who didn’t seem irritated was Ohtani.

Ohtani complimented the fans of his new team, which gave him a standing ovation as he stepped into the batter’s box for his first at-bat.

“When you’re the opponent they’re scary,” Ohtani said, “but when you’re on their side, they make you feel very reassured.”

He accepted responsibility for making an out on the bases when he tried to stretch a double into a triple as Mookie Betts was stopped at third base by coach Dino Ebel.

Ohtani even cracked a couple of jokes. He chuckled when he pointed out that with Betts and Freddie Freeman homering, he was the only one of the Big Three to not homer. He said with a laugh of the blue carpet in the center field that players walked down in the pregame ceremony, “I thought it was a little long.”

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani tosses his bat after hitting a single in the fifth inning Thursday.

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani tosses his bat after hitting a single in the fifth inning Thursday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

His disposition has remained consistent since the accusations of Mizuahara’s alleged theft were first reported by The Times on the team’s recent visit to South Korea.

On Sunday, before the first game of the Freeway Series, Ohtani visited a group of Angels pitchers who were warming up in right field. As he walked back to the Dodgers’ dugout on the third-base side of the field, he smiled and waved goodbye to his former teammates.

The event was captured by a pack of Japanese photographers and television camera operators.

The next day, after he accused Mizuhara of stealing from him in a news conference, Ohtani played catch in left field. It was the first time he’d thrown the ball since he underwent his second Tommy John surgery in September. Ohtani was encouraged by how he felt and wanted to move up the start of his throwing program, but the team convinced him to stick with his original timetable and wait another couple of weeks.

Once again, the event was captured by a pack of Japanese photographers and television camera operators.

Ohtani had to know his every move was being recorded, just as it has been for most of his adult life. So maybe he was making an effort to show he was unaffected by the events of the last week. Or maybe he really was unaffected.

Either way, this ability to prevent the scandal from negatively influencing his performance will be critical for both him and the Dodgers. Until certain questions are answered, and answered credibly, this story will follow him.

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