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What to know about the scandal over Shohei Ohtani's interpreter

Baseball star Shohei Ohtani (right) and his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara (left), are seen in the dugout in the 2024 MLB Seoul Series game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. The Dodgers have fired Mizuhara after Ohtani's representatives claimed he was the victim of "a massive theft."
Jung Yeon-Je
AFP via Getty Images
Baseball star Shohei Ohtani (right) and his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara (left), are seen in the dugout in the 2024 MLB Seoul Series game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. The Dodgers have fired Mizuhara after Ohtani's representatives claimed he was the victim of "a massive theft."

In an ordinary time, MLB superstar Shohei Ohtani's debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers would dominate sports headlines, as he brings a jaw-dropping array of talent onto the field. The Dodgers are even opening their 2024 season on a splashy trip to South Korea.

But Ohtani's performance on the field is competing for attention with another extraordinary story about him, one that centers on illegal gambling — and allegations that Ohtani's friend and longtime interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, drained millions of dollars from the player's bank accounts to cover bad bets.

The Dodgers have fired Mizuhara, a team representative told NPR on Thursday. The team refused to comment further, saying, "The Dodgers are aware of media reports and are gathering information."

Neither Mizuhara nor anyone else involved in the story has been charged with a crime. Here's a quick guide to what's going on:

How did the gambling allegations emerge?

It started with reports from the Los Angeles Times and ESPN that a federal investigation was targeting a bookmaking operation allegedly run by Mathew Bowyer, who lives in Orange County, Calif. When contacted by NPR, the local U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on those reports.

The Los Angeles Times says it learned "Ohtani's name had surfaced" in the inquiry, leading the Times to ask Ohtani's representatives about his potential involvement. ESPN investigative reporter Tisha Thompson tells NPR that she was also working to track down more details, eventually leading to an interview with Mizuhara, earlier this week, and to records of wire transfers in large amounts.

"How [Mizuhara] came to lose his job basically started with reporters — myself — asking questions about those wire transfers," she said.

"The wire transfer payments that were sent from Ohtani's account were sent to an associate of Bowyer's," Thompson said, citing multiple sources and bank data reviewed by ESPN.

But, she adds, her sources and Mizuhara himself "said that Ohtani does not gamble and that the funds were being used to cover Mizuhara's gambling losses."

Bowyer's attorney, Diane Bass, did not respond to an NPR request for comment before this story published. In a statement to ESPN and the Times, she said Bowyer had never met or spoke with Ohtani.

Interest in the case has cast a shadow over the start of the Dodgers' season, which began with a win over the San Diego Padres in Seoul. Ohtani, a two-time American League MVP who signed a blockbuster $700 million deal with the Dodgers, went 2-for-5 in the game at the Gocheok Sky Dome.

Did the interpreter change his story?

Thompson says she conducted a 90-minute interview with Mizuhara late Tuesday night, as the Dodgers prepared to open their season in Seoul.

"He basically said that it was his gambling debt, and that when he got too far in a hole — we have multiple sources telling us it's at least $4.5 million — he went to Ohtani, who told him he wasn't happy about the gambling debts, but he had decided to pay it off.

"He then gets into details about how he watched Ohtani log on to a computer and start to make wire transfer payments based on instructions that Mizuhara was giving him," she said.

But about 12 hours later, Thompson says, things took a turn. ESPN and the Times say they got a statement from Ohtani's attorneys at the Berk Brettler law firm stating, "In the course of responding to recent media inquiries, we discovered that Shohei has been the victim of a massive theft and we are turning the matter over to the authorities."

Thompson called Mizuhara, who disavowed his statements from the night before.

"When I said, 'Did you lie to me in that interview?' he said, 'Yes.' And then he tells me Ohtani knows nothing about his gaming debts and did not do the wire transfers," Thompson says.

Who is Ippei Mizuhara?

"Mizuhara was born in Japan and grew up near Anaheim, attending Diamond Bar High School and UC Riverside," according to anMLB account published in 2021.

Mizuhara, 39, and Ohtani, 29, met in Japan, when Ohtani starred for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball league from 2013-2017. Mizuhara worked as a translator for the team.

When Ohtani made his heralded leap to the MLB in the U.S., he asked Mizuhara to come along as his interpreter. He has been a regular sight alongside the dual-threat slugger and pitcher ever since, even catching behind Ohtani in the home run derby at the 2021 All-Star Game.

Mizuhara told Thompson that he began placing bets with Bowyer after meeting him in 2021. He said he wagered on international soccer and other sports, knowing that MLB forbids players and employees like him from betting on baseball.

"I never bet on baseball," Mizuhara said, in Thompson's story for ESPN. "That's 100 percent. I knew that rule. ... We have a meeting about that in spring training."

When the interpreter changed his account of what happened, Thompson reported, he also told her he's willing to accept the consequences for his actions.

What kind of laws and rules are involved?

Multiple gambling restrictions are involved, from MLB rules to state and federal laws.

The type of gambling that's alleged in Mizuhara's case is illegal in California, which does not allow sports betting of any kind. Ohtani has been based in the state since 2018, when he started his MLB career with the Los Angeles Angels.

Major League Baseball regulates gambling under its Rule 21 on misconduct. It outlines three tiers of offenses, with the maximum penalty being a lifetime ban like the one it famously imposed on former great Pete Rose.

The first two tiers are relatively straightforward. If a player, official or employee is found to have bet on a baseball game they're not involved in, they would be punished by a one-year ban. If they bet on a game in which they take part, they face a lifetime ban.

The third tier in the MLB rule covers players or employees who make bets with illegal bookmakers — a section that could come to bear in the current controversy. In these cases, the rule states, it's up to the commissioner to impose a penalty that's deemed "appropriate in light of the facts and circumstances of the conduct."

The rule defines an illegal bookmaker as anyone running a gaming operation in a jurisdiction where it's illegal to bet on sports.

Sports gambling isn't illegal under federal law, as a 2018 Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for such ventures. But federal agencies do pursue people who run illegal gambling rings. In one such case in Ohio last fall, criminal charges ranged from owning and operating an illegal gambling business to "tax evasion, conspiracy to defraud the United States, willful failure to collect and pay over employment taxes, money laundering and an obstruction-related offense."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.