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MLB Has A Gambling Problem Even If Shohei Ohtani Doesn’t

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 20: Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers is seen while his interpreter Ippei Mizuhara is seen in the dugout during the 2024 Seoul Series game between Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres at Gocheok Sky Dome on March 20, 2024 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)
Masterpress/Getty Images

You're probably thinking right now that the hierarchy of Major League Baseball from Rob Manfred on down is in full panicked lockdown about how to handle its Shohei Ohtani problem, and you would be wrong. MLB knows exactly what to do—it just needs to figure out the easiest way to shove two camels through the eye of one needle.

The Ohtani problem as we know it is still being defined—is he a degenerate gambler who is setting his longtime interpreter Ippei Mizuhara up for a massive fall, or a loyal yet incompetent friend trying and failing to keep his pal out of a jam, or the victim of an elaborate theft by an associate with parlay disorder syndrome, or just a semi-amiable lummox caught in a series of bizarre switches beyond his comprehension? It could be any of these things, individually or in tandem, or it could even be none of the above. Regardless, Ohtani is now the central figure in a whodunit in which we don't really know any of the three components of the word "whodunit.”

This is the kind of thing that makes Rob Manfred sweat grout—MLB definitely likes Ohtani, and it likes gambling just as much if not more, but the combination of the two turns into an avalanche of ick that makes people take the Pavlovian leap to the Black Sox scandal even though it doesn’t appear to be anything like that; the more apt comp is Michael Jordan in turbo-bettor mode, and that's only if you think Ohtani was the one making the bets despite the principals all claiming he didn't. Put another way, this doesn't seem to be a story that ends with anyone throwing Angels games, and that is how we understand the relationship between sports figures and wagering.

What we have is this: Someone got in deep with a bookmaker, Mathew Bowyer, and had to move large amounts of money to Bowyer to keep an as-yet-unspecified ass out of an as-yet-unspecified jackpot. Foolishly, that person decided to leave a paper trail, and just as foolishly the bookie left paper trails of his own, and now the cops have a case that some eager-beaver district attorney thinks can be prosecuted.

If this seems vague to you, it's because at the executive level, the truth isn't really the point. All the principals are pot-committed to Ohtani as a moneymaker, cultural icon, and active ballplayer. The twist comes with Ohtani's proximity to the gambling part because MLB needs them both even as they work against each other's interests. It did not help any of the principals that Mizuhara invoked the sacred name of DraftKings in his initial statement of culpability, given that DraftKings is now a de facto part-owner of American sport. It definitely didn't help Ohtani that Bowyer allegedly didn't mind Ohtani's name on the wire transfers. It is also worth noting that the bets were made in California, where sports wagering still isn't legal and unlikely to become so any time soon because of the difficulty in getting such a bill through the legislature without changing the state constitution.

In short, everyone is guilty of something here even if it’s just stupidity, but nobody knows quite who and what are linked. It feels like a story that may eventually die, if only because so many are incentivized to hold a pillow over its face until it stops struggling. We at least will get the answer to the question nobody has never asked, which is "Just how bulletproof is Shohei Ohtani?" Based on early returns, that answer is "As bulletproof as MLB needs him to be."

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