Can Dodgers' Shohei Ohtani avoid some sort of suspension?

Mar 24, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA;  Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani
Mar 24, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani / Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been racking my brain the last week since the Ohtani betting story broke trying to figure out a resolution that doesn’t involve at least suspending the Dodger star. I can’t do it.

This is against the best judgment of the vast numbers of tin foil hat Pete Rose types on social media who want to leverage the story to get Pete in the Hall of Fame. Their logic … never mind, they have no logic, they just want Pete in. That’s another story.

At some point – it may be a year from now before the facts are all settled – it seems to me that MLB is likely to have no choice but to at minimum suspend Ohtani for some period.

Ohtani held a press conference Monday afternoon at which he denied having bet on baseball or any other sport. He also denied having asked his recently dismissed interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, to place bets for him or knowing that Mizuhara had a gambling problem.

He did not explain how Mizuhara could have had access to Ohtani’s accounts, or how he was unaware of the transfer of such large sums of money.  

Even if MLB wanted to make the whole episode go away, it has no choice. Ohtani is wrapped up in an IRS investigation entirely outside the MLB purview. That investigation will be closely followed and widely reported on by major sports news outlets. Given the international attention following all things Ohtani, each of those news outlets has a substantial profit interest in reporting on every aspect of the investigation. So they will pursue it assiduously.

The only real question is timing. Federal inquiries can take weeks, months, possibly up to a year. We may not know the facts until 2025. But we will, and media/public pressure will force MLB to act on what is determined.

One apparent fact, however, is pivotal and very likely damaging to any Ohtani claim of non-involvement. This is that the betting funds in question came directly from Ohtani’s account. In his statement Monday, Ohtani made no effort to deny that.

There are, it seems to me, only three ways of explaining that fact, and all of them to a greater or lesser extent are problematic for the game’s greatest star. From most serious to least serious, they are:

1. Ohtani made the bets or authorized his interpreter to make the bets for him. If so, and if the bets were on baseball – the IRS will get the bookie’s records to prove or disprove this – he’s banned for life. If the bets were on sports other than baseball, they’re still illegal under California law and he’ll be suspended for a significant period of time, probably a year or more. Ohtani pointedly denied this Monday.

2. Ohtani’s interpreter made the bets on his own, but Ohtani agreed to cover them out of his personal finances. That’s substantively the same scenario as point one, and eventually could lead to the same range of outcomes. Ohtani also specifically denied having covered the bets.

3. Ohtani’s interpreter made the bets without Ohtani’s knowledge, and covered them by drawing money from Ohtani’s account without the player’s foreknowledge or involvement. That’s the scenario Ohtani and his attorneys are advancing; the ‘theft’ scenario.

It’s the best-case scenario for Ohtani, but it doesn’t fully absolve him. At best, it provokes a guilty plea from the interpreter. At worst, it eventually necessitates a public trial at which all the relevant financial records will come into the public sphere. And it raises the “knew or should have known” standard with respect to Ohtani having given so irresponsible a person full, unfettered access to his accounts.

By that standard alone, MLB could be forced to suspend Ohtani for some period – a month at minimum, given the severity of the charge and the amount of money involved – for pure foolishness, if no other reason.

After all, who gives anyone, even their best friend and business partner, access to their personal multi-million dollar accounts without very closely monitoring those accounts?

Ohtani’s former interpreter may be guilty of theft; that’s for the legal process to decide. Ohtani may not have made any bets or authorized his interpreter to do so for him; he says he didn’t and investigators will at some point come to a pretty fair conclusion on that matter as well. If he did, those bets may or may not have been on baseball.  That, too, will be learned.

But at some date, for some length of time, it seems likely MLB will be forced to sit Ohtani for at least some significant period as a result of all this. The player’s only bailout is if his accounts weren’t the source of the funds, or if his interpreter somehow stole access to those accounts without Ohtani’s awareness, permission or knowledge.

And since neither of those scenarios seems plausible, it's more likely than not that MLB will have to sit Ohtani, at least for a while. That won’t satisfy the Pete Rose tin foil hat guys, but it seems inevitable.

Milwaukee Brewers' best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2024 (