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Shohei Ohtani says he's sad, shocked over Mizuhara's gambling and theft allegations

Months after Shohei Ohtani signed a huge deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason, the team fired his interpreter over gambling and theft allegations.
Harry How
Getty Images
Months after Shohei Ohtani signed a huge deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason, the team fired his interpreter over gambling and theft allegations.

Updated March 26, 2024 at 10:37 AM ET

Baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani said Monday that until a couple of days ago, he didn't know that his now-fired interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, was involved in alleged gambling and theft.

In his first public comments about the controversy that has clouded the start of MLB's 2024 season, the Japanese-born Ohtani, who spoke through an interpreter, said he was saddened and shocked at hearing the allegations.

The Dodgers fired Mizuhara last week, after Ohtani's representatives said they "discovered that Shohei has been the victim of a massive theft and we are turning the matter over to the authorities."

During a press conference from the team's interview room, which aired live on the MLB Network, Ohtani said he has never bet on sports.

"Ippei has been stealing money from my account and has told lies," Ohtani said. He added that Mizuhara was in debt, but told Ohtani's representatives and the media that the baseball star was paying off debts on behalf of a friend.

"To summarize how I'm feeling right now, I'm just beyond shocked. It's really hard to verbalize how I'm feeling at this point," Ohtani said.

He said his lawyers recommended that since this matter involves theft and fraud, they have authorities handle it, and that he's "completely assisting in all the investigations that are taking place right now."

Ohtani said he'll let his lawyers do their job and turn his attention to the game.

"I'm looking forward to focusing on the season and I'm glad we had the opportunity to talk," he concluded.

He didn't take any questions from the media following the remarks, which lasted just over 10 minutes.

Later Monday, the Dodgers hosted the Los Angeles Angels for an exhibition game.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said earlier that he welcomed Ohtani's plan to speak out.

"I think it's good. I think it's the right thing to do," Roberts said during a media scrum on Sunday, according to the L.A. Times' Jack Harris. "I'm happy he's going to speak, speak to what he knows and give his thoughts on the whole situation. I think it'll give us a little bit more clarity."

Ohtani, a two-time American League MVP, signed a blockbuster $700 million deal with the Dodgers during the off-season.

Investigations are ongoing

Mizuhara has told ESPN investigative reporter Tisha Thompson that he ran up massive gambling debts (at least $4.5 million, according to Thompson) with an illegal gambling ring that was allegedly run by Mathew Bowyer, who lives in Orange County, Calif.

Neither Mizuhara nor Bowyer has been charged with a crime.

The Los Angeles field office of the IRS's criminal investigation division "is involved in an investigation involving Mathew Bowyer and Ippei Mizuhara," spokesperson Scott Villiard told NPR.

Under California law, sports gambling is illegal. Federal charges against people accused of running an illegal gambling ring can include counts of money laundering, fraud and tax evasion.

The MLB is also investigating. In a message to NPR, the league said it "has been gathering information since we learned about the allegations involving Shohei Ohtani and Ippei Mizuhara from the news media," adding that it's investigating the matter.

MLB imposes stiff penalties on players or employees who bet on baseball — something Mizuhara says he didn't do, betting instead on international soccer and other sports.

Major League Baseball regulates gambling under its Rule 21 on misconduct. Part of the rule covers players or employees who make bets with illegal bookmakers. In these cases, the rule states, it's up to the commissioner to impose a penalty that's deemed "appropriate in light of the facts and circumstances of the conduct."

The interpreter allegedly changed his story

A key question remains unanswered: why did Mizuhara allegedly change his account of how his betting losses were covered?

Thompson has told NPR that when she held a 90-minute interview with Mizuhara early last week, he initially told her Ohtani had agreed to pay off his interpreter's gambling debts, with the baseball player even making wire transfers himself.

But Mizuhara soon recanted his statements, and Ohtani's attorneys at the Berk Brettler law firm announced they believe their client was the victim of "a massive theft."

"When I said, 'Did you lie to me in that interview?' he said, 'Yes,' " Thompson said. "And then he tells me Ohtani knows nothing about his gaming debts and did not do the wire transfers."

Concerns in Japan about Ohtani's future

Regardless of who is to blame, the matter is sure to be a setback to Ohtani's meteoric rise, says veteran Japanese sports journalist Nobuya Kobayashi, who has written a book about Ohtani.

"Even if Mr. Mizuhara is completely responsible, and Ohtani is not liable at all, but is a victim, the feeling of absolute reliability that Ohtani used to give off is going to change," he argues.

Kyodo News reported that Ohtani had deleted all pictures of Mizuhara from his Instagram page, and none were visible on the feed as of Tuesday in Tokyo.

Ohtani had surgery to fix a torn elbow ligament in his pitching arm last year, and he will not pitch for the rest of this year. Kobayashi thinks the Mizuhara affair may increase the pressure on Ohtani to perform.

"He will concentrate on getting good results in baseball from now on," he says. "I'm worried that this may cause him another injury."

Who is Ippei Mizuhara?

"Mizuhara was born in Japan and grew up near Anaheim, attending Diamond Bar High School and UC Riverside," according to anMLB account published in 2021.

But questions have been raised about the accuracy of some parts of Mizuhara's resume; NBC Los Angeles reports that officials at UC Riverside did not find records of Mizuhara attending.

Mizuhara, 39, and Ohtani, 29, met in Japan, when Ohtani starred for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball league from 2013-2017. Mizuhara worked as a translator for the team.

When Ohtani left for the MLB in the U.S., he asked Mizuhara to come along as his interpreter. He has been a regular sight alongside the dual-threat slugger and pitcher ever since, even catching behind Ohtani in the home run derby at the 2021 All-Star Game.

When the Dodgers officially introduced Ohtani as a member of the team three months ago, Mizuhara stood alongside him on stage. Play-by-play broadcaster Joe Davis identified him as "Shohei's interpreter — mostly Shohei's best buddy, close friend — Ippei Mizuhara."

NPR International Correspondent Anthony Kuhn and Chie Kobayashi contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.