IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Shohei Ohtani was supposed to be the new face of MLB. What does it mean he's now the face of a scandal?

Accusations of "massive theft" against Ohtani’s interpreter in a case tied to sports gambling have thrust the MLB star into controversy.
Get more newsLiveon

Shohei Ohtani was supposed to offer a bright rebirth of sorts for baseball. Instead, he’s shrouded in controversy and suspicion, and the timing couldn’t be worse. 

After Wednesday night’s accusations against his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, experts say it could sour a critical moment for Ohtani and even the game itself. Ohtani’s attorneys claim the Japanese star was the victim of a “massive theft” in a case tied to sports gambling.

The scandal was exposed against a backdrop of Ohtani’s debut with the Dodgers earlier that day, in the first game of the Major League Baseball regular season against the Padres — and the first MLB game played in Seoul, South Korea

“Yesterday was supposed to be the coronation” of Ohtani, 29, as the sport’s new king, Adrian Burgos, a sports historian and professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told NBC News. “The MLB, regardless of what truth ultimately comes out of this story, has this international global superstar associated with the worst sin of baseball.” 

Questions continue to swirl around the player’s knowledge of Mizuhara’s gambling habits and his involvement in the case. According to league officials, the MLB was unaware of the case until contacted by the media. They have not been contacted by federal prosecutors and are gathering information, they said. 

Given Ohtani’s historic significance as one of the greatest athletes to ever play in the league, along with the expectation of him to revitalize a sport that’s long been waning in popularity, many experts say the scandal could also actually lead to a bump in interest for baseball — but not for the right reasons.

“People are going to totally tune in for the mess. That’s part of Americana charm,” Burgos said.  

Both Burgos and Stanley Thangaraj, chair for the study of race, ethnicity and social justice at Stonehill College, whose research in part focuses on Asian Americans in sports, mentioned that viewership is likely to grow, but the game itself could be tarnished. And the expanded interest in baseball may not be a long-term one, either. 

“This was a made-for-TV event that got side-railed by the story,” Burgos said of the Seoul Series. “So there’s a lot of work for MLB to do to capture the interest of fans for the right reasons, which is genuine interest in what’s going on on the field versus concerned about other matters.” 

While Ohtani has had a great deal of pressure on him since entering the league in 2018, some say that the scandal could impact his image in a good way. 

“There’s a lot of storylines that could come out of this that actually humanize him,” said Ryan Reft, a historian at the Library of Congress whose work is included in the anthology “Asian American Sporting Cultures.” “In the end, he hasn’t hurt anybody. All he did was lose $4.5 million of his money.”

And given Ohtani’s tendency to keep his personal life close to the vest, Reft believes that his performance on the field is likely to remain at All-Star level. One example of Ohtani’s discretion is how he was able to keep his relationship to basketball player Mamiko Tanaka under wraps until he posted about their surprise marriage on social media in February. 

“He’s one of one. I don’t think anything can really diminish that,” Reft said. 

Shohei Ohtani and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara
Shohei Ohtani and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara at a news conference at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in December.Ashley Landis / AP file

The Japanese-born Ohtani has become one of baseball’s most recognizable figures since his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Angels, drawing fans from across the globe for his exceptional skill both on the mound and at the plate. But the two-time MVP’s move this season from the Angels — a team that last made the playoffs a decade ago — to the Los Angeles Dodgers — a franchise that made the playoffs 37 times and clinched seven World Series rings — has been considered by sports fans as one that would usher in a championship dynasty for his new team. It also came with the largest contract in North American sports history, with Ohtani signing for $700 million over 10 years.

Additionally, experts say, his Dodgers debut at Wednesday’s game in Seoul, just hours before the controversy would break, was supposed to help draw a more global audience. 

“The fact that they started the season in Seoul was about reaching out to the international brand of MLB and trying to both connect with Korean fans about MLB and this broader international world,” Burgos said. “How do we get a global fan base?” 

Baseball, once considered America’s favorite pastime, has lost viewership steadily over the past several decades, with the 2023 World Series between the Texas Rangers and the Arizona Diamondbacks being the least watched in television history. Thangaraj said baseball’s decline can in part be attributed to its slow embrace of cultures outside of white, working-class America. While the U.S. has become more diverse and its culture more globalized, he said, baseball has not kept up. 

“The MLB needs to be able to tell a story that is more than the rural, white aesthetic of baseball,” Thangaraj said. “This is not the ‘Field of Dreams’ anymore. That cannot grow the brand.”

The league’s heavy promotion of Ohtani, Thangaraj said, appeared to be an admission of both the player’s undeniable talent, and the strength of the Asian market. But, he added, Ohtani’s image, in addition to positive stereotypes around Asian players, had a lot to do with it, too. 

“We also have someone who is sold and marketed as squeaky clean — as the boy next door,” Thangaraj said. “Here, the ways in which Asian players … interpreted as stoic and all about the game, rather than about everything that surrounds the game, is going to now be re-examined.” 

Baseball hasn’t been without its gambling scandals. Cincinnati Reds player-manager Pete Rose was banned from the game after he was accused of betting on his own games in 1989. And in 1919, in the largest game-fixing scandal in baseball, the Chicago White Sox were alleged to have thrown the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The team eventually became known as the “Black Sox.” Ohtani, however, has not been accused of participating in any bets himself and Mizuhara has said he did not bet on any baseball games. 

Burgos noted, though, that it may be difficult for the MLB to “moralize” the issue of gambling now that sports betting has taken significant root in the sport’s culture. In 2021, sports betting company Draft Kings announced an expansion of its relationship with the MLB to include live game streaming and sports betting. 

“Because the MLB has decided that this was going to be a way for them to make more revenue,” he said, “it’s not surprising that someone within the orbit of MLB gets caught up.” 

For more from NBC Asian America, sign up for our weekly newsletter.