Perspective | Shohei Ohtani is caught up in a scandal as mysterious as he is

Perspective | Shohei Ohtani is caught up in a scandal as mysterious as he is

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

As it turns out, the most interesting thing about Shohei Ohtani is not that he has a dog that he tried to keep anonymous. Nor is it that he’s now a married man who initially revealed his bride simply to be a Japanese woman — a “typical, ordinary person,” nothing more.

No, the most fascinating tidbit about Ohtani, baseball’s mightiest, most mysterious superstar, is that he has a friend with a debilitating gambling addiction. Also, that Ohtani has so much money that he doesn’t notice when bundles, which eventually total at least $4.5 million, go missing from his bank account.

And registering somewhere off the scale from one (borrrrr-innnngg) to 10 (this is bananas!) is the fact that Ohtani exists in such a cloistered vault of fame and seclusion that even the paid representatives working on his behalf will leave him reeling, lost in translation.

But fact isn’t the right word. There’s little about Ohtani’s living nightmare that offers concrete answers. We know nothing for sure because this shocking episode involves a ballplayer who for seven years, while captivating his sport, has remained an enigma to the public. (Wouldn’t Major League Baseball just love to go back to the days when see-through pants were its biggest drama?) But now the Los Angeles Dodgers’ $700 million man, the galaxy’s most important baseball icon, finds himself tangled inside a scandal that doesn’t make a bit of sense.

Opaque, meet Ohtani. Ohtani, say hello to Ambiguous.

We got to sit in with these principal players Monday, when for the first time Ohtani addressed the mutating and amorphous gambling story that involves his former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara.

Ohtani wanted to set the record straight. And so he read from a prepared statement, in Japanese, while a Dodgers employee interpreted his words into English. At times, Ohtani looked up, holding steady eye contact with the room packed with reporters and team officials. He used words intended to evoke emotion and reveal his state of mind, words such as “saddened” and “shocked.” He declared that he has never bet on baseball, or any other sport for that matter. Also, in an attempt to explain why the story changed from its original version of events that had Ohtani paying off his friend’s mounting gambling bills — a narrative told by people on Ohtani’s team to ESPN — he labeled Mizuhara as a liar and pinned the whole ordeal on the interpreter covering up his own debts and deception.

“Last weekend in Korea, media had reached out to a representative in my camp inquiring about my potential involvement in sports betting,” Ohtani said, as interpreted by Will Ireton.

Ohtani continued on with this explanation, pausing for Ireton to relay it in English.

“So, Ippei never revealed to me that there was this media inquiry, and to the representatives in my camp he told, Ippei told, to the media and to my representatives that I, on behalf of a friend, paid off debt.

“Upon further questioning, it was revealed that it was actually, in fact, Ippei who was in debt.

“And told my representatives that I was paying off those debts.

“All of this has been a complete lie.”

For some, the notoriously private Ohtani came across as transparent. And at least one longtime baseball writer, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, thought Ohtani showed credibility.

“This is one of the most confusing, confounding, surprising stories that I’ve ever covered in 45 years of covering baseball. And we got a little bit more clarity on it today, but I’ve never seen a story switch as big as it did from one day to the next, between the interpreter and Shohei,” Kurkjian said on “SportsCenter.” “We have to decide are we going to believe him? I’m going to believe him based on what I saw today, but we still have a lot more information to come out. We still have a lot more questions to be asked.”

As he sat there for more than 11 minutes and shared his version of the story, Ohtani gave the sports world a morsel. Yet it seemed more like a buffet, cascading with vulnerability and candor, compared with what we’ve previously accepted from this intensely private superstar. His frankness comes at a time when he needs the public, and baseball’s stakeholders, to believe him. And because he can launch a fastball 101 mph and mash the ball at the plate, many people will be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, Ohtani’s task in building trust with a public that he has spent his entire MLB career trying to lock out may prove more challenging than becoming baseball’s greatest two-way player.

In a society of oversharing, Ohtani has chosen to keep his life as his own. He’s a player, not a personality. His responsibilities end within the confines of the ballpark. Last year, when Ohtani accepted the American League MVP award with a cute little friend on his lap, he declined to give the dog’s name when asked. Even when he had a chance to add excitement to baseball’s offseason, Ohtani instead chose to treat his free agency as a state secret. Only after signing with the Dodgers did Ohtani reveal that Dekopin was man’s best friend. Later, it came out that “typical, ordinary” Japanese woman Mamiko Tanaka was now man’s new wife.

These mundane details, which would have humanized Ohtani, he kept locked away. Now the sensational revelations that have sullied his name won’t easily go away. Ohtani did not owe the public access to his life. If he felt it was unnecessary to be anything more than the best baseball player on the planet, he had that right. However, since only scant information is known about Ohtani as a person, hearing Monday’s speech felt like trying to make sense of a distant figure.

The public doesn’t know Ohtani all that well. Neither, apparently, did Ohtani know his friend and interpreter. Mizuhara somehow obtained access to Ohtani’s vast wealth, able to wire money in person at a bank or through a password-protected online account. At least, that’s the incredible narrative we’ve been offered.

Also, according to ESPN, as the outlet worked to break the story, its reporter contacted Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, last week. The outlet did not receive a response from the agent; instead, “a crisis-communications spokesman for Ohtani” got in touch, and that person would quote Ohtani as saying, yes, he sent large payments to cover Mizuhara’s debts.

Ohtani’s people have since backtracked from that story, and in his statement, Ohtani claimed he knew nothing of his friend’s gambling habit until a team meeting last week. But if that’s to be believed, then the public is also being asked to suppose that neither the agent nor the crisis team communicated with Ohtani in Japanese what was happening or mentioned the explosive story that was about to drop. The public is to deduce that Mizuhara was Ohtani’s only connection to the English-speaking world and that, even as his walls closed in, Mizuhara was able to dupe his friend.

Again, little clarity. Just more questions.

But when Ohtani finally spoke, questions were not allowed. After reading his statement, Ohtani told reporters that he was glad “we had this opportunity to talk.” Then he walked out of the room to go play ball.

He talked, but confusion lingers. So, quite possibly the most interesting thing about Ohtani, baseball’s impenetrable superstar, is that even when he talks, his audience remains in the dark.

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