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Why an Ex-MLB Interpreter Thinks Ohtani Is Telling the Truth

Ippei Mizuhara and Shohei Ohtani. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Is the Shohei Ohtani gambling story Major League Baseball’s worst nightmare or just an ephemeral curiosity? The answer depends on whether the story Ohtani told reporters last week is true. The Japanese superstar, who recently made his debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers, claimed he was unaware that his interpreter and confidant, Ippei Mizuhara, had made $4.5 million of sports bets using Ohtani’s bank account. That eye-popping figure, plus the closeness of Ohtani and Mizuhara’s relationship and a shifting narrative around the story’s details, had stirred suspicion that Ohtani himself had made the bets — possibly even on baseball. But Daniel Kim, a prominent Korean baseball analyst who has worked as a Major League Baseball interpreter and scout, buys Ohtani’s version of events. I spoke with him about why he thinks this scandal may be more straightforward than it may appear.

Among many other roles you’ve had in the baseball world, you used to work as an MLB interpreter. Could you tell me a little bit about that experience? Who did you interpret for and when?
For the New York Mets in 2003 and 2004 — that was with a player named Jae Seo. And I briefly interpreted for Byung-hyun Kim in 2005 when he was with the Rockies.

In your experience, did athletes from other countries who might not have a total command of English usually socialize with other players off the field much? And if so, were you there for that kind of thing?
Yeah. Tom Glavine invited us to his house, I remember, on one of the trips to Atlanta. I remember going over to his place and having dinner. We would go out. Jay Seo was, at that time, in his second or third year, so he hung around with the younger players on the roster. So on the road, we would go out and have some Korean barbecue and things of that nature. But what I found at that time — I don’t know how things are these days — is that players don’t necessarily socialize all that much. They spend so much time together at the stadium and on the road as well. So whenever they get some free time, I found that they tend to spend more time with their family and friends.

When you were doing this job, sports gambling was not legal anywhere. Now it’s legal in many states, though still not in California. Did you ever deal with any kind of betting-related stuff back then?
None whatsoever. But I do remember back then that illegal online gambling was something that was starting to take place. So every year at spring training, the Players Association would visit each team, and I remember one of the reps from the PA warned players not to get involved — that a lot of this online gambling was operated overseas and that it was completely illegal.

Which seems like sensible advice to this day.

I’m going to quote one of your tweets on this subject from last week: “When I worked as an interpreter, I had to assist the players on just about every aspect of their daily lives, including opening bank accounts, taking them to the DMV to get licenses and setting up utilities.” You’re saying that players and their interpreters naturally sort of have an intimate financial relationship just by the nature of the role. Shohei Ohtani and Ippei Mizuhara were known to be especially close; they were good friends. So do you think it’s plausible that Ohtani wouldn’t have known anything about what was going on under his nose?
That’s really hard for me to tell. Just speaking from my experience when this all happened, I kind of thought about how things were for me as an interpreter, and I did have that personal information at the time. I was exposed to a lot of their personal information as I was helping them. I don’t exactly know what happened with Ohtani and Ippei, but if their relationship was somewhat close to mine, I could see how it could happen.

It’s true that Ohtani is known to be kind of weird about money — he has a long track record of making strange and baffling financial decisions with little to no explanation. I know Ohtani’s press conference was pretty limited, but did you find that to be a convincing explanation?
I believe him. I didn’t have any doubts as to what he was saying. I think he was telling the truth. From what I’ve heard from some of the friends that I have that have followed Japanese baseball closely, Shohei Ohtani is someone that just thinks about baseball 24/7. I don’t know him personally, obviously. But whatever was said in the press conference, I completely have faith that he was telling the truth.

There’s no part of you that questions his version of events, even though the story shifted from Mizuhara initially saying that Ohtani had paid off his debt to Ohtani claiming he had no idea about the transactions in the first place?
I mean, everything that was supposedly coming from Ohtani up until last week — it was coming through Mizuhara. So at this point, do I believe Ippei Mizuhara or do I believe Shohei Ohtani? I’ll place my bet on Shohei Ohtani.

So to speak. Do you think Major League Baseball’s going to be satisfied with his explanation? Obviously they would like the story to go away as much as possible, I assume.
I think Major League Baseball needs to look into it and do a formal investigation. That’s my personal opinion — just to get it out of the way. I’m not saying this because Ohtani has done anything wrong — I believe he was telling the truth. But there are definitely some fans out there that believe that he has something to do with it. So I think just to clear everything out, I think at this point you have to do an investigation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why an Ex-MLB Interpreter Thinks Ohtani Is Telling the Truth