MLB Avoids Worst-Case Gambling Scenario. But It’s Not Time to Relax.

Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, we finally got something approaching an official account of the biggest story in baseball. The details are, somehow, outrageous and astounding, while still presenting a version of events that follows the least salacious plausible narrative.

According to an affidavit filed by an IRS investigator in federal court, Ippei Mizuhara — until recently Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter, confidant, and right-hand man — stole some $16 million from the Dodgers superstar to cover sports gambling losses. It makes the case that the 39-year-old Mizuhara should be arrested for, and charged with, bank fraud. The day before the affidavit began circulating publicly, The New York Times reported that Mizuhara is negotiating a guilty plea to that charge, which carries a statutory maximum of 30 years’ jail time.

This case stems from a federal investigation into bookmaker Mathew Bowyer; several notable figures from the sports world, including Yasiel Puig, had already turned up in this dragnet before Mizuhara entered the picture.

Having searched Mizuhara’s phone, his bookie’s home and phone, as well as a victim’s phone (presumably Ohtani’s), federal investigators drew several conclusions: That Mizuhara impersonated Ohtani in order to access his bank accounts and authorize wire transfers; that he interpreted for Ohtani even in conversations with his own agents, accountants, and financial managers; and that he made 19,000 illegal wagers, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, and ended up more than $40 million in the hole.

What the feds did not find was evidence that Ohtani was ever aware he was being swindled, or that he ever interacted with or gave money to Bowyer or his people, or even discussed gambling with Mizuhara. Nor did they find evidence that Mizuhara had wagered on baseball.

As to the theory that Mizuhara is serving as a fall guy for Ohtani’s own gambling, the affidavit quotes a text exchange in which one of the bookmakers offers this exact theory, to which Mizuhara responds: “Technically I did steal from him. it’s all over for me.”

The idea that baseball’s biggest and most inscrutable star was secretly a gambling addict gained traction because it’s a titillating narrative. Baseball can be a little stuffy sometimes; it’s fine to entertain more exciting hypotheticals. But this affidavit should quash that theory forever, at least among anyone who’s not married to their preferred story, facts be damned.

As much as MLB or the Dodgers might have cause to cover up a star’s theoretical illegal gambling debts, the IRS — as Kathryn Xu pointed out in Defector — has no such incentive. And not only is Mizuhara on the record saying he’s solely responsible, nobody I know would be willing to eat a 30-year prison sentence in order to limit a friend’s embarrassment.

Ohtani might be catastrophically naïve. His advisors might be oblivious to the point of incompetency. Mizuhara might have behaved in a fashion that is incomprehensible to most reasonable observers. But there’s no evidence that Ohtani is a crook. Oswald acted alone.

Now that the details of the investigation appear to exonerate baseball’s biggest star, MLB has once again been the beneficiary of good fortune. Baseball’s first great scandal of the online sports betting era, the Alabama incident last year, involved neither professional baseball nor illegal gambling. More than that, the criminal mastermind who placed the bet was like something out of a Coen Brothers farce and got caught immediately.

This time, when the fruits of the federal investigation came to light, they exonerated the star player under suspicion. MLB could treat this like a bullet dodged. The league should instead treat it like a warning shot. Because the worst-case scenario didn’t come to pass, but the conditions for creating the worst-case scenario were absolutely there.

Here, I’ll quote section 17.g of the affidavit, a text message from the individual marked as Bookmaker 1 to Mizuhara:

“Hey Ippie, [sic] it’s 2 o’clock on Friday. I don’t know why you’re not returning my calls. I’m here in Newport Beach and I see [Victim A] walking his dog. I’m just gonna go up and talk to him and ask how I can get in touch with you since you’re not responding? Please call me back immediately.”

This isn’t like the text message you get from your mom when she bumps into one of your friends at the supermarket. Bookmaker 1’s message carries the implied threat that if Mizuhara didn’t call him back, he’d expose everything to Victim A, presumably Ohtani.

If we take him at his word, that means that an illegal bookmaker had two things: First, access to Ohtani, or at least potential access. Second, compromising information about someone very close to him. Mizuhara, by all accounts, was more than an assistant. He was Ohtani’s best friend, his most trusted link to the English-speaking world; today’s complaint calls him Ohtani’s “de facto manager.”

What if, instead of threatening to expose Mizuhara to Ohtani, the bookmaker had threatened Mizuhara in order to gain leverage over Ohtani? We’re walking away from this story with Ohtani’s hands clean, but what, apart from a criminal’s discretion, prevented this situation from escalating to the point where Ohtani himself was compromised?

“Swing over a 1-2 changeup in the eighth-inning of a six-run game I have a prop bet on, or else your buddy (or partner, or sibling, etc.) gets it,” can escalate quickly from point shaving to throwing games.

Mizuhara is facing criminal charges not because of his gambling habit per se, but for bank fraud. Superstar athletes get defrauded by their friends… maybe not every day, but commonly enough that Ohtani is not the only recent MVP to have a legal dispute over money management with people who were once close to him.

And the kind of gamblers Mizuhara fell in with are not the online casinos whose ads festoon every corner of professional sports nowadays, but the kind who have been off-limits to active MLB players since the era of Hal Chase. The league, mindful of lessons learned over the past 110 years, takes great pains to impress on its players how important it is to steer clear of such individuals.

Even so, we just came closer than most people realize to a Black Sox-style scandal taking down the most important individual in baseball this century. MLB would be wise to redouble its education and enforcement efforts to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Strictly speaking, this doesn’t have anything to do with legal sports betting, but baseball’s involvement with that enterprise weakens its ability to combat scandals like this one. Mizuhara got in with a shady bookie, but only because California is one of 12 states in which sports betting is still illegal.

If for some reason Ohtani had signed with the Rockies when he first came to the U.S., and Mizuhara had become his interpreter, he could’ve stolen all this money to bet on sports in Colorado legally, and maybe nobody would’ve ever been the wiser.

Is it possible for this legal and highly profitable gambling center to exist in the world of professional baseball alongside its shadowy and illicit cousin? Perhaps. But to embrace one while abjuring the other requires specificity and discipline bordering on cognitive dissonance.

In order for competitive sports to work as an entertainment enterprise, it has to not only be irreproachably legitimate, but look irreproachably legitimate. And if the Mizuhara affair proved anything, it’s that a sizable percentage of baseball fans are willing to call the probity of the sport into question with little evidence.

A match-fixing scandal, more than any number of offenses that are more odious by any reasonable moral standard, has the capacity to threaten the sport existentially. For that reason, if I were in charge, I’d be downright puritanical in writing the rules and draconian in enforcing them. Nobody who draws a paycheck from MLB or its clubs would be allowed to bet on sports, period. Nobody who has regular access to players and managers — journalists, doctors, agents, family members — would be allowed to bet on baseball, period. Violation of those rules would come with a significant suspension, up to a lifetime ban.

But it’s hard to denounce gambling as untouchable with one hand, while taking in millions of dollars from sportsbooks with the other. In its attempt to bleed every dollar from every crevice in the game, MLB has bet that this is not an impossible contradiction to resolve.

Maybe that’s true, and there are untold hundreds of millions to be made in affiliate deals without compromising the integrity of the game or opening the door for another scandal like this one. But they’ve gotten away with one here, and getting a free spin at the wheel usually makes people less cautious, not more. Bookies know that better than anyone.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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synco
2 months ago

And if the Mizuhara affair proved anything, it’s that a sizable percentage of baseball fans are willing to call the probity of the sport into question with little evidence.

It’s because what you wrote earlier in the article:

Ohtani might be catastrophically naïve. His advisors might be oblivious to the point of incompetency.

must indeed both be true. And which may in fact be true, yet are still hard to believe. Particularly the second point, since one would think this passes beyond the point of incompetence to criminally negligible.

Last edited 2 months ago by synco
Roger McDowell Hot Foot
2 months ago
Reply to  synco

Indeed, we could take this further. The problem with too-rapidly washing MLB’s hands of this whole affair is not just that Ohtani is apparently an innocent rube (fair enough, I don’t expect my star athletes to be cynical Mamet characters), nor that Ohtani’s advisors (whoever they are) allowed Mizuhara to get away with it — but that two different teams looked over Mizuhara’s apparently fabrication-filled credentials and didn’t raise so much as a single question. The total lack of vetting of someone so close to the players and the game is really surprising, and you have to think that any kind of attention might well have caught him earlier, given that the guy doesn’t seem to have been an impressively adroit con man so much as a habitual liar who quickly got in way over his head.

Even if “Ippei acted alone” seems basically to be true, it’s a bit shocking how little vetting and supervision the teams seem to give their near-the-game staffers, and this is something they really ought to be thinking hard about right now, before it gets them into trouble… again. I mean, this is not even the only serious recent scandal about what kind of people were working in the Angels’ clubhouse, specifically.

Lanidrac
2 months ago

Ohtani gave Mizuhara sole access to his accounts and never bothered to check anything himself, while Mizuhara correctly answered the security questions to change the contact info to himself, disabled notifications, and set up his own legitimate account in which to funnel his winnings. Exactly what “fabrication-filled credentials” were publicly accessible for others to catch?

Solitairemember
2 months ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I believe the credentials being referenced are the parts of Mizuhara’s résumé which earlier reporting found to be fabricated. College degrees, past employers, work experience, that sort of thing.

boofbonser26member
2 months ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Ohtani crucially didn’t give Ippei sole access. Ippei had to impersonate Ohtani, change the e-mail associated with the account, and turn off notifications in order to gain access to the account. And it almost didn’t work, the first time he tried it the bank locked the account. The feds literally have recordings of him talking to the bank, and IP records showing it was only his devices, phone numbers, etc. And if you weren’t aware, Ohtani turned over his phone to the feds and they searched every text message between him and Ippei over the time period, found nothing. Now, you could believe they communicated some other way, but based on Ippei’s texts to the bookie he does not seem like, um, the sharpest knife. So in sum: there’s mountains of evidence Ippei acted alone, and no evidence Ohtani was involved (I grant the initial changing stories are fishy, but based on the actual evidence we have, explained by those statements coming from Ippei, and doesn’t outweigh the evidence we do have).

mcgraw45member
2 months ago
Reply to  boofbonser26

This is all true, but it doesn’t negate the fact that 1) Ohtani and his representatives failed to properly vet Ippei, 2) the bookmaker relied upon Ippei’s assertions/implications that his account was backed by Ohtani to authorize credit lines, and 3) the amount of money involved (over $40M in losses, over $100M in action taken over a period of just a few years) seems to be the kind that even a bookmaker would want to verify Ippei’s financial backer (and likely more than his major league salary could back, which is allegedly the source of the money in that account). Together with the initial changing stories, this is enough to make it an issue in the court of public opinion. In addition, an indictment is not the same as a guilty verdict, and without access to all of the information available to prosecutors (both in the complaint and not), we cannot know what information the prosecutors chose not to use in their complaint. There are oftentimes conflicting facts left out of complaints when they do not support the overall legal theory, and they may have thought they did not have the information to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt (which is a high standard) that is different from the one they filed.

As you said, based on the actual evidence we have, it’s pretty clear Ippei acted alone, but I think it’s fair for people to wonder (not condemn based on its absence) if there is more information out there than what has been provided, given how this all unfolded at the beginning.

Smiling Politelymember
2 months ago
Reply to  mcgraw45

No one anywhere is defending Nez Bolelo today, and if Montgomery fired Boras for not making him ENOUGH money, well, Ohtani is his own guy, but I’d sure as hell show Bolelo the door.

cartermember
2 months ago

Judging from personal exp vetting isn’t really a thing in any line of work. They look at social media, job history, and that is it. No verification on degrees etc. I would imagine a sports team does background checks, but most major companies don’t even do them anymore because of the cost. Do mlb teams even do them? Wally Backman had multiple arrests (he was my hs coach) many domestic abuses, felonies, and back taxes and he got hired on as a mlb coach for a few days before a news article leaked stuff.

My assumption in background checks is that they are sort of to scare off people with bad backgrounds. No background check is actually sent in most lines of work. The company I work for has hired hundreds of people and made everyone fill out a background check and never sent one off. Instead we just do a social media scan. Who knows.

jb1205member
2 months ago
Reply to  carter

I work in HR for a large nonprofit organization; we run background checks for every hire, no matter the level. They are outsourced, and we don’t have the option to have people fill out a background check and not send one off- we simply provide the contact info for the new hire and have to wait for the results. Every similar organization I’ve worked for has also run on this model.

This is not to cast doubt on your personal experience, just to say: background checks are real, and the cost is accessible and considered worthwhile by organizations that aren’t nearly as resourced as an MLB team or most private enterprises. If the Dodgers or other teams are not running them, it’s pretty stupid given the clear risk involved.

Smiling Politelymember
2 months ago

Teams are way better at (and more incentivized at) predicting whose fastball/swing will be good than they at *who* will be good. That LA followed up Bauer with Ippei is proof that infinite finances do not change priorities or make you immune from exploitation (and imo, LA should be embarrassed beyond expression and as focused on not making similar mistakes in the future as they are in Ohtani himself)