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

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

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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.

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