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How Shohei Ohtani has handled the gambling saga: ‘He’s unflappable’

LOS ANGELES — It was only a few weeks ago that Shohei Ohtani was laughing in the dugout alongside Ippei Mizuhara during the Dodgers’ season opener in Seoul, blissfully unaware at the time of the alleged deception, lies and more than $16 million theft that would lead to his longtime interpreter getting fired by the Dodgers and charged with bank fraud by federal prosecutors. 

Mizuhara appeared in U.S. District Court last Friday with shackles around his ankles as he surrendered to authorities after being accused of stealing millions from Ohtani to pay off illegal gambling debts. A few hours later, “The Show Goes On” blared from the Dodger Stadium speakers. Ohtani stepped to the plate and heeded the advice of his walk-up song. 

In his first at-bat after learning about the charges against Mizuhara — a friend he had known for more than a decade, a confidant he had placed an exorbitant amount of trust in from the moment he arrived in the major leagues in 2018, and, ultimately, an accused swindler who would violate his enormous faith — Ohtani lifted a 403-foot home run through the chilly, crisp evening air and into the left-field pavilion. 

It was his 175th career homer, a milestone blast that tied Hideki Matsui for the most home runs in major-league history by a Japanese-born player, and it encapsulated Ohtani’s extraordinary ability to compartmentalize in the midst of a stunning scandal that never appeared to visibly bother or distract him, according to multiple teammates and coaches. 

“You just never learn about a person until they go through some adversity, whether on the field or in this case off the field,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I’ve learned that he’s unflappable. He really is.”

After beginning his Dodgers career 8-for-33 (.242) without a home run, some wondered whether the gambling saga and Mizuhara’s betrayal might weigh on Ohtani. Quickly, though, the modest start to his $700 million deal became a distant memory. Ohtani said that whatever happens off the field, it’s still his job to play to the best of his abilities. 

He bounced back by reeling off an eight-game hitting streak, during which he went 16-for-35 (.457) with four home runs, looking more and more comfortable at the plate even at the height of the controversy. Even with his hit streak now over, Ohtani entered Monday leading the majors in doubles, extra-base hits and total bases. 

“He’s recovering from a surgery, too, he’s throwing now, and he’s keeping things really light in the clubhouse, not making the whole scandal a distraction for him or for us in the clubhouse,” shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “It’s been really nice the way that he’s been handling things.”

Rojas admired that even when Ohtani wasn’t playing the way he wanted, Ohtani’s demeanor never changed. 

That could be attributed to his innocence, which his teammates and coaches never questioned. But even if the stress didn’t appear to be weighing on Ohtani, they still felt for him throughout the ordeal, which Roberts believes Ohtani handled “with flying colors.” 

“He’s very stoic,” Roberts said. “You just don’t know his emotions. He just comes in every day the same. You never know if things are good or things are bad, stuff on his mind. He’s just a pro. He just wants to play baseball.”

James Outman compared that stoicism to the way Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and “all the great players” always seem to find a way to stay locked in. 

“You could tell he’s got good practice just with all the media attention he gets anyways, being able to dial in what he’s doing,” Outman said. “It’s pretty impressive, to be honest.”

Over the past few weeks, the Dodgers have gained more intel on how Ohtani operates. Being a designated hitter can sometimes put a player “a little bit on an island,” as Roberts explained it, but the Dodgers manager was encouraged by how much Ohtani was still engaging with those around him. 

Rojas has learned that Ohtani tends to quietly keep to himself during his diligent preparation and cage work, but the two-time MVP is also quick to laugh and joke around with his teammates. And on game days, Rojas and Outman have appreciated Ohtani’s willingness to communicate after an at-bat and share the characteristics of the pitches he saw. 

“He just gives whatever information he can to the next guy because he’s trying to win,” Outman explained to FOX Sports. “We’re talking baseball. He speaks the same language when it’s baseball.”

The language barrier hasn’t prevented his teammates from seeing his sense of humor, either. On Saturday, Ohtani was having a conversation in Japanese with Yoshinobu Yamamoto a couple lockers away. Rojas said he didn’t understand what they were talking about, but Ohtani’s laugh was still infectious.

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“Just being in the clubhouse and seeming like he was enjoying his environment makes me feel like he’s leaving everything aside,” Rojas said. “We don’t know when he goes home how he feels, but at least at the ballpark, he seems to have a really good time with us.”

That, Roberts believes, could be attributed in part to Mizuhara’s departure. 

With his longtime interpreter gone, no longer serving as Ohtani’s shadow at the ballpark, Roberts believed a “buffer” was removed. He saw Ohtani begin to connect more with staff and teammates. The two-time MVP became more accessible. 

“I thought that freed him up,” Roberts reiterated last week. 

Of course, so did Ohtani’s first home run as a Dodger — a majestic, 430-foot blast off the Giants’ Taylor Rogers on April 3 that admittedly gave the slugger some relief after his slow start. The deep drive ended an eight-game homerless skid that was the longest of his career to begin a season, but it wasn’t until Ohtani reached the top steps of the dugout, when teammate Teoscar Hernández showered him with sunflower seeds, that he finally cracked a smile. Hernández, in particular, has built a close relationship with Ohtani in their first season with the Dodgers. That started quickly in spring training, when Hernández began teaching the Japanese slugger different phrases in Spanish. 

“I think the best thing we can all do is treat him like a regular baseball player, like everyone else in the clubhouse,” Roberts said. “I think someone that’s so unique and so talented, people tend to get tentative and shy away. But in the clubhouse, you can’t do that.”

Shohei Ohtani News: First Dodgers home run

Roberts isn’t certain if Ohtani has really been able to separate his professional and personal life the way he has made it appear or if the two-time MVP just has “a good poker face.” He assumes it’s probably somewhere in between. But if the past few weeks have worn at all on Ohtani, he has hid it masterfully since news first broke about Mizuhara’s involvement in wire transfers made from Ohtani’s account to an illegal bookmaker. 

Days later, in a press conference on March 25, Ohtani matter-of-factly outlined his version of events. In a nearly 12-minute statement, Ohtani vehemently denied that he ever bet on sports, that he ever asked anyone to do so on his behalf and that he had any knowledge of the payments. His collected demeanor belied his disbelief. 

“To summarize how I’m feeling right now, I’m just beyond shocked,” Ohtani said, days after Mizuhara fessed up to him following a team meeting in Korea. “It’s really hard to verbalize how I’m feeling at this point.”

The extent to which Mizuhara allegedly stole from Ohtani would not be unveiled until weeks later. 

Reports initially suggested Mizuhara had funneled an amount in excess of $4.5 million from Ohtani’s bank account. According to a criminal complaint released last Thursday, the total was actually more than $16 million. In a 37-page report containing a litany of records, statements and text messages, the accusations against Mizuhara backed up Ohtani’s claims that he was completely unaware of the payments. 

“He was exonerated, which we all believe,” Roberts said. “I’m just happy that it’s behind us.” 

According to the complaint, Mizuhara accompanied Ohtani to open the bank account in question in 2018, convinced Ohtani’s representatives that their star athlete didn’t want them monitoring the account, changed the account’s contact information to his own after he began accumulating gambling debts in 2021 and falsely identified himself as Ohtani to deceive bank employees into authorizing wire transfers to the bookmaker. Transfers from the account were allegedly made from devices and IP addresses associated with Mizuhara.

Ohtani has not publicly addressed his reaction to the charges against Mizuhara yet, except to provide a short comment to The Los Angeles Times last week that he was “very grateful for the Department of Justice’s investigation” and that it will allow him “to focus on baseball.”

That hasn’t seemed to be a problem for Ohtani, whose 15 extra-base hits through his first 16 games were the most in Dodgers franchise history. He entered Monday with the five hardest-hit balls of the Dodgers’ season. 

“Just happy that there’s a little bit more clarity, and Shohei can move forward,” Roberts said. 

The show goes on. 

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.


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