Amid gambling investigation, Detroit can remember Ohtani’s great day at Comerica

Late last July in Detroit’s Comerica Park, the baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani — then with the Los Angeles Angels — accomplished something so rare and so special that it may never again be done in the major leagues.

In the first game of a doubleheader against the Tigers, Ohtani pitched a one-hit shutout, the first complete game of his career, in a 6-0 victory. In the second game, as a designated hitter, Ohtani hit two home runs in an 11-4 victory. His two-pronged attack reinforced his image as a unique and special star.

Despite arm surgery that will keep him from pitching this season, Ohtani’s new, 10-year, $700 million free-agent contract with the rival Los Angeles Dodgers seemed like yet another glorious chapter for the Japanese star who is probably the world’s best player — and maybe baseball’s best ever.

But that happy storyline was jolted earlier this week when the Dodgers fired Ohtani’s friend and interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, for his involvement with a bookmaker taking illegal sports bets in California. Reports said Mizuhara owed $4.5 million.

Even the very best explanation is embarrassing to both Ohtani and to baseball: That Ohtani had no knowledge of his friend’s gambling habits; that Ohtani knew about the trouble but took pity to help a friend pay off a debt; that Ohtani has “been the victim of a massive theft.”

Before long, Ohtani, his lawyers and his former translator will get their stories straight. In the meantime, we are left to contemplate the worst possibilities imaginable against the modern backdrop of the shotgun marriage of legal gambling and major sports.

Since the Supreme Court opened this Pandora’s Box in 2018, arenas and telecasts are cluttered with cheesy ads pushing get-rich-quick schemes. They urge addictive and destructive behavior — and instant gratification! — upon gullible suckers who are usually, but not always, young males.

One of the myths about legalized sports gambling is that players earn so much now that they don’t need to fix games or shave points. Even if that is true, this wishful thinking ignores the modestly-paid persons behind the scenes who interact daily with professional sports teams. Translators, for instance.

They are privy to inside information about injuries, personal problems, or illness that might affect the winner of a game or the margin of victory. Information like that can be passed on to gamblers or bookies to settle other debts or to place new bets before the point spread changes.

Here in Detroit, we are well-versed in gambling scandals and sports. We remember Alex Karras, a star of the Lions’ defensive line, suspended for gambling by the National Football League in 1963. We remember Tigers’ pitcher Denny McLain, pal of bookies, suspended by MLB for half the 1970 season.

Beyond the Motor City was baseball’s Pete Rose, of course; and basketball’s Michael Jordan, who “retired” for a season after gambling revelations and the murder of his father; and the college basketball scandals around New York City that set the sport back in the 1950s; and going all the way back to 1919 and Shoeless Joe Jackson’s Chicago “Black Sox” who conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series to Cincinnati.

According to American folklore, a little boy in Chicago on the courtroom steps allegedly shouted to Jackson: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Perhaps someone, in some language, will shout to Ohtani: “Say it ain’t so, Sho!”

Or maybe the real story will come from Mizuhara, who said he bet on pro football, college football, soccer, and basketball. He grew up in California and speaks English well. The IRS is investigating him, so perhaps we will learn how well he speaks under oath.

“I never bet on baseball,” he told ESPN. “That’s 100%. I know that rule.”

Diane Bass — lawyer for the Orange County alleged bookie Matthew Bowyer — told the Los Angeles Times that her client “never met, spoke with or texted or had any contact in any way with Shohei Ohtani.”

Ohtani, who turns 30 years old on July 5, could be in his prime. He is a six-year veteran of the American major leagues and a two-time most valuable player. Before that, he played five professional years in Japan.

Last spring — it seems like more than a year ago — Ohtani led Japan to a victory over the United States in the World Baseball Classic, an event that seemed to add momentum to American baseball’s connections with Asian markets and talent.

This week, that effort continued when Ohtani and the Dodgers opened the major-league season with two games against San Diego in Seoul, South Korea. If this were a movie, a gangster actor would now walk into the scene to say: “Nice sport ya got here, baseball. Be a shame if somethin’ happened to it.”

Or, as Mark Twain once allegedly said: “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” The problem here with this strange story is the fear that it makes its own kind of cynical sense, and that one of the best, feel-good stories in sports is about to erupt into a devastating scandal.

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