In Japan, Ohtani’s ‘perfect person’ image could take a hit with firing of interpreter over gambling

People in Japan react to the news about U.S. baseball star Shohei Ohtani’s Japanese interpreter Ippei Mizuhari being fired by the Los Angeles Dodgers after allegations he stole money from Ohtani. The IRS confirmed on Thursday that Mizuhara and his alleged bookmaker are under criminal investigation. Mizuhara was fired by the Dodgers following reports from the Los Angeles Times and ESPN about his alleged ties to an illegal bookmaker and debts well over $1 million. (AP Video: Hiromi Tanoue)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Shohei Ohtani is referred to in Japan as “kanpeki no hito” — the perfect person — because of his manners and impeccable behavior.

That image may have taken a hit when the Dodgers fired his good friend and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara on Wednesday over allegations he gambled illegally and stole Ohtani’s money to pay off debts.

The law firm representing Ohtani called it a “massive theft” in a statement. The IRS on Thursday confirmed that Mizuhara and Mathew Bowyer, the alleged illegal bookmaker, are under criminal investigation.

The Seoul Series — the first MLB games in South Korea — were supposed to be a showcase for Ohtani before a fertile baseball audience in Asia. The games between San Diego and Los Angeles were scheduled before he signed a $700 million, 10-year deal with the Dodgers in December. For MLB, the stars seemed perfectly aligned and there is already talk of a similar series next year in Tokyo.

A bomb threat Wednesday briefly put a cloud over the series. Police were warned before the first game of a bomb at the stadium but found no explosives. Ohtani was reportedly the target.

Then came the other Ohtani bombshell.

“I was shocked when I read it,” said Jorge Kuri, a hardcore Dodgers fan from Tijuana, Mexico, who runs a garment business there.

Wearing a blue Dodgers sweatshirt and cap at the Gocheok Sky Dome, Kuri said he was trying to sift through the information that’s out there. He said he’d just returned from vacation in Japan “where Ohtani is king.”

“I don’t know what the end is going to be with this because I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he added. “Right now he’s the image of Major League Baseball.”

Mizuhara, 39, was let go from the team following reports from the Los Angeles Times and ESPN about his alleged ties to an illegal bookmaker. He was in the dugout and with the team through Wednesday’s game — the shocking reports dropped Wednesday evening in the U.S., while most fans in Asia were asleep.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts confirmed Mizuhara had a meeting with the team Wednesday but declined to elaborate. He said he did not know Mizuhara’s whereabouts and said a different interpreter would be used.

“Anything with that meeting, I can’t comment,” Roberts said, adding that “Shohei’s ready. I know that he’s preparing.”

Ohtani didn’t practice on the field before Thursday’s game. In his absence, his face appeared on the video board promoting a line of Japanese cosmetics.

He seemed unfazed hours later in his first at-bat as he lined a single to right field. In two other at-bats he hit towering drives to right just a few feet short of a home run.

Mizuhara is likely to be investigated by MLB in addition to U.S. authorites, and the whole story is a stunning turn for the man who has been inseparable from Ohtani since the two-way star came to the U.S in 2017. He told ESPN this week that Ohtani knew nothing of his illegal wagers on international soccer, the NBA, the NFL and college football.

As Mizuhara told it, Ohtani was an innocent victim to his close friend’s gambling addiction.

The Associated Press was unable reach Mizuhara for comment. It was not clear if he had hired an attorney.

As long as Ohtani isn’t directly accused of illegal betting, the allegations won’t meaningfully hurt his carefully crafted public image, said Lee Seung-yun, a marketing professor at Seoul’s Konkuk University.

“Ohtani’s image is like clean, white porcelain, and that could make a speck look bigger than it is,” he said. “Information spreads at amazing speeds these days, narratives are made before the truth of the facts are figured out, and if Ohtani was seen as a questionable character, the allegations would have really hurt him.”

“But his image is so strong and impeccable, and as long as he wasn’t directly involved, the allegations may just end up a blip,” Lee added.

Lee Jong-Sung, a sports culture expert at Seoul’s Hanyang University, said Ohtani’s image to global fans, including South Koreans, was that of a mysterious monk who “fully devoted himself into a religion called baseball.”

He said the allegations facing Mizuhara so far only may only strengthen that impression of Ohtani — a person who’s driven by perfection in baseball but more naïve and simple-hearted with other things.

“It’s a problem you often see with athletes — putting too much trust and depending excessively on the people they have known for long and are comfortable with and not knowing when they are taken advantage of,” Lee Jong-Sung said.

“It’s not all about you being perfect. Ohtani and the Dodgers should have better judgment in picking the people he works with,” he added.