The Shohei Ohtani betting scandal won’t be the last
The Shohei Ohtani betting scandal won’t be the last

MMajor League Baseball officials will tell anyone who will listen that the integrity of the sport is safer than ever. Despite the widespread legalization of sports gambling, despite MLB’s lucrative partnerships with gambling platforms, despite Americans legally wagering about $120 billion on sports last year alone, and despite in-game ads encouraging fans to place bets right now — despite all of this, everything is a fine. Third-party security companies, baseball officials point out, monitor traffic on DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM and other legitimate apps and can see bets in real time. They can flag curious activity for a few minutes and then trace the activity all the way back to an IP address, usually someone’s computer or phone.

But, as I learned while reporting my book Charlie Hustle, about the rise and fall of Pete Rose, there are still illegal bookies. They won’t be found in back alleys or smoky rooms like they once were; many bookmakers in 2024 have their own shiny websites. Some, like legal platforms, allow gamblers to bet online. It’s easy and convenient. That traffic isn’t tracked by baseball — or often by anyone else — and it’s voluminous. According to the American Gaming Association, Americans bet about $60 billion illegally on sports in 2022.

And now we know that everything is definitely not right. Baseball is facing its biggest gambling crisis since 1989, involving the most wanted star Shohei Ohtani; Ohtani’s translator and close friend, Ipei Mizuhara; an alleged illegal bookmaker in Southern California; and alleged payments of millions of dollars to pay off huge gambling debts.

For those who don’t follow baseball, Ohtani isn’t just the highest-paid player in the sport, set to make a record $700 million under his contract; he is the most famous baseball player in the world. The 29-year-old Japanese superstar has established himself as one of the best strikers and pitchers in the game, a feat last accomplished by a man named Babe Ruth. Ohtani hits huge home runs that disappear into the night and embarrasses opposing hitters with 100 mph fastballs. In December, the Dodgers signed him, winning a free-agent sweepstakes that captivated American baseball fans and the Japanese public. He’s a two-time Most Valuable Player and pretty much the face of the sport.

The details surrounding the current scandal are dark and yet to be revealed. On Tuesday, Ohtani’s camp and Mizuhara himself told ESPN that Ohtani had agreed to pay off $4.5 million in gambling debts Mizuhara had racked up. (Sports betting is illegal in California.) That, they explained, is why Ohtani’s name allegedly appeared on the wire transfers to the bookie. The next day, however, Ohtani’s representatives changed their minds. They have now accused Mizuhara of stealing the money, and Mizuhara has retracted his previous statement to ESPN. Whatever the outcome, and although Mizuhara is said to have bet on football and other sports, not baseball, speculation that the sport’s biggest star is somehow involved with millions of dollars in potentially illegal gambling and wire transfers , is a baseball nightmare on the cusp of Opening Day. It flattens out again and again the sordid story that MLB has been trying to bury for 35 years – the tragic story of baseball legend Pete Rose. The echo here is actually so loud that fans may need to cover their ears.

In 1989, Rose was an aging version of Shohei Ohtani, minus the pitching. He held the Major League hitting record, was a lock for the Hall of Fame and was, by far, one of the greatest players of all time. Then, in February of that year, baseball officials heard a rumor about Rose’s dealings in the gambling underworld. As with the Ohtani scandal, reporters dug into a story, and in Rose’s case, the details were particularly scandalous.

Sports Illustrated investigated the possibility that Rose used bookies to bet on baseball, including his own team, the Cincinnati Reds. If guilty, Rose would have compromised the integrity of the sport and breached a well-known rule posted at every club, the breach of which could see him banned for life. In the rush, also shortly before Opening Day, top baseball officials at the time tried to understand the extent of the damage. Outgoing Commissioner Peter Huberoth, new Commissioner Bart Giamatti, and Giamatti’s handpicked Deputy Commissioner, Faye Vincent, convened a secret meeting with Rose to discuss the issue. Soon, despite Rose’s many lies, both that day and in the weeks and months that followed, baseball knew it all. Yes, Rose had bet on baseball and the Reds, and yes, he had fallen—although in most cases Rose had not bet alone. Whenever he wanted to bet on a game, which was often, Rose had close friends bet for him.

It’s a problem that baseball officials and security providers assured me would never happen today — at least if the player in question is betting legally. Security experts could immediately identify strange and unusual bets, I was told, even if the bets came from a close friend, footman or assistant to the player. But the investigators who prosecuted Pete Rose in 1989 have long predicted that baseball, like every other professional sports league, is not as safe as we’d like to believe. Vincent, who later held the highest job in baseball, was particularly concerned. And the Mizuhara case — as deep as it is, however connected or not to Ohtani — proves that he has a right to be concerned.

If a man with daily access to a major league locker room and the most important baseball player in the world can rack up $4.5 million in gambling debt, what else is going on in the shadows? What else do we not know? As Vincent once told me, “I think there is a very high probability of more Pete Roses and there will be more corruption.”

It’s only a matter of time, in other words, and maybe that time is now.

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