What Ippei Mizuhara’s guilty plea negotiations could mean for Shohei Ohtani

For the past three weeks, Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani has played baseball without his closest professional companion. Ippei Mizuhara acted as Ohtani’s interpreter for six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels and this past spring with the Dodgers. The two men drove to the ballpark together, shared meals together and followed identical schedules. Mizuhara effectively served as Ohtani’s shadow — until he became the central figure in a gambling scandal that emerged in late March.

That cloud over Ohtani could soon clear. The New York Times reported on Wednesday evening that Mizuhara was negotiating with federal authorities to plead guilty with charges related to the theft of at least $4.5 million dollars to pay gambling debts. Federal authorities began investigating Mizuhara when the scandal broke and the investigation is said to be close to a conclusion. 

The scandal has not hampered Ohtani or the Dodgers on the field, but it did foster a series of questions about the two-way star. A conclusion to the investigation into Mizuhara could answer some of those.

What does this mean for Ohtani? 

A guilty plea by Mizuhara could corroborate Ohtani’s version of events, which Ohtani laid out in a statement on March 25 through his new interpreter Will Ireton. When the story broke five days earlier, ESPN relayed two different versions of events based on interviews with Mizuhara. In the first, Mizuhara said Ohtani paid his gambling debts, in hopes of helping a friend. In the second, Mizuhara recanted but declined to provide details for how the money was paid to Bowyer. The discrepancy between the two narratives prompted skepticism both within baseball and beyond.

“The story changed in 24 hours,” said Dave Sharapan, a veteran Vegas oddsmaker, in a conversation last week. “Isn’t that the curious part?” He added, “That part of it has a lot of people going, ‘Jeez, which one do you believe, the before or the after?”

Ohtani said he had never bet on baseball or any other sports. He described himself as unaware of Mizuhara’s gambling habits. (Mizuhara had said he met Mathew Bowyer, the alleged illegal bookmaker, at a poker game in 2021.) He said Mizuhara never informed him that news outlets were inquiring about how Ohtani’s name ended up in Bowyer’s records. Mizuhara initially informed Ohtani’s representatives that Ohtani paid his debts, Ohtani said.

“Ippei has been stealing money from my account and has told lies,” Ohtani said through Ireton.

Ohtani’s story still sparked doubt and led to questions about its plausibility. How did Mizuhara have access to the accounts? Why did no one else from Ohtani’s camp notice the missing money? The Times reported that federal investigators had discovered evidence that Mizuhara manipulated certain accounts so that Ohtani did not receive notifications about transactions. It remains unknown if Mizuhara will admit to wrongdoing of that nature.

Ohtani has not been accused of any wrongdoing. He was not named as part of the ongoing investigation into Mizuhara and Bowyer run in conjunction by the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security, along with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California.

How will this impact MLB’s investigation? 

Major League Baseball opened an investigation shortly after the story broke. An MLB spokesperson declined comment on Wednesday evening. If Mizuhara pleads guilty and accepts responsibility for the transfer of money from Ohtani’s account to Bowyer, it is unclear if MLB would proceed with the investigation. Ohtani has denied sports betting of any sort, and an attorney for Bowyer has said the bookmaker never took bets from Ohtani.

The penalties for betting on baseball are significant. An MLB employee who bets on a game in which the employee participated faces a lifetime ban. Betting on other MLB games merits a year-long suspension. The punishments are less severe when placing illegal bets on sports beside baseball. The precedent suggests the guilty party would be fined, at the discretion of the commissioner’s office.


Baseball’s betting rules explained: What players (and interpreters) can and can’t do

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had said he hoped the league’s investigation would be short. “Given the way the story unfolded, it’s important in terms of assuring our fans about the integrity of the game that we verify the things that Mr. Ohtani has said, and it’s really that simple,” Manfred told MLB Network on March 28. 

There remains no evidence that Ohtani bet on baseball or any other sport. 

Will Ohtani address the situation?

Ohtani does not address reporters on a regular basis. He did not take questions about Mizuhara when he gave his statement on March 25. He politely declined direct questions about Mizuhara from Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernández, who speaks Japanese, on March 28. 

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

That could change, perhaps later this week or early next, if Mizuhara pleads guilty. Ohtani is expected to wait until the negotiations between Mizuhara’s attorneys and the federal authorities have been finalized. At that point, he may speak about the situation, though he could again refuse to take questions.

On the field, Ohtani has done his normal damage as a hitter, batting .333 with a 1.012 OPS and three homers for the Dodgers, who have taken their usual place atop the National League West.

(Top photo of Mizuhara and Ohtani: Keith Birmingham / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

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