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The Ohtani scandal threatens baseball before Opening Day

LOS ANGELES: Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Dodgers will take center stage on Thursday (March 28) as Major League Baseball’s new season begins on US soil amid a gambling scandal that has engulfed their biggest star.

When the Dodgers won the race to sign Japanese superstar Ohtani last December in a generous $700 million deal – the richest contract in North American sports history – the move was widely hailed as a blockbuster coup.

Ohtani was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player twice and has been compared to the legendary Babe Ruth since his arrival in the Major Leagues in 2018 for his unique combination of elite pitching and hitting.

The rapid euphoria among Dodgers fans received a further boost when the team acquired pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Ohtani’s prized Japanese teammate Yoshinobu Yamamoto – further evidence that the franchise is committed to serious World Series contention.

But three months later, some of the breathless excitement that accompanied the Dodgers’ December shopping spree has evaporated as they prepare to host the St. Louis Cardinals in Thursday’s home opener.

The Dodgers started their regular season with two games in Seoul against San Diego and finished 1-1 last week.

But the findings were just a footnote to the scandal that erupted around Ohtani after his longtime friend and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara was accused of defrauding him of millions of dollars to pay off his gambling debts.

Ohtani’s camp released a statement saying the superstar was the victim of a “massive theft” by Mizuhara, who was promptly fired by the Dodgers last week.

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However, the details of the scandal remained unclear and were clouded by contradictory statements from Mizuhara, who initially told ESPN that Ohtani himself had approved payments to an illegal bookmaker totaling $4.5 million.

Twenty-four hours later, Mizuhara changed his story, insisting that Ohtani had no knowledge of his gambling debts and had not transferred the money from his account.

Major League Baseball announced a formal investigation on Friday as pundits in the US media wondered aloud whether Mizuhara had actually placed bets on Ohtani’s behalf – something that could result in a career-ending ban if the bets were Ohtani’s own team concerned.

In his first public comments on the controversy on Monday, Ohtani denied ever betting on sports, accused Mizuhara of transferring money without his knowledge and described himself as “extremely shocked” by the breach of trust.

“I never bet on baseball or any other sports and I have never asked anyone to do it on my behalf and I have never contacted a bookmaker to bet on sports,” Ohtani said.

“This was all a complete lie…I didn’t know this was happening until a few days ago…Ippei stole money from my account and told lies.”

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