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Mudville: April 13, 2024 11:40 am PDT

We Got Now

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Baseball’s Bizarre 2024 Bingo Card is filling up fast.

Here we are only two games between the Dodgers and Padres into the season in the Rob Manfred manufactured Opening Day middle of the night (on the West Coast where the Dodgers and Padres happen to live) money grab in South Korea, remember when Opening Day used to be in Cincinnati, and the player formerly known as Saint Shohei is all over the news for all the wrong reasons.

This is Manfred’s worst baseball nightmare.

Shohei Ohtani’s longtime interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, who is really a personal assistant to Ohtani, was fired this week by the Dodgers after questions arose involving at least $4.5 million in wire transfers sent from Ohtani’s bank account to an illegal bookmaking operation.

To fully grasp that figure and where baseball once was and where it is going, consider that on Nov. 29, 1976 future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson was the story of baseball when he signed a massive free agent contract with the Yankees … three years for $3.5 million.

So here we are now in 2024 where an assistant to a superstar player runs up a gambling debt with an illegal bookie, according to reports from ESPN, an operation which is not one of MLB’s sanctioned betting outfits, that totals $1 million more than baseball once paid its superstar slugger free agent.

MLB and, according to reports, the IRS are now investigating. I am not going to prejudge the MLB investigation, let’s see what comes out of it.

But, what a baseball world we live in during this Manfred Era.

There was no betting on baseball, at least that is what we have been told over and over again, with this scandal. This is much different that the Pete Rose or Shoeless Joe Jackson situation, we have been told.

Stories have changed too and that is where all the Ohtani intrigue comes into play. I’ve watched enough Law & Order and Blue Bloods to know when stories drastically change, something is up.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Shohei Ohtani reacts after flying out in the 7th inning of the 2024 MLB Seoul Series baseball game 2 between Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on March 21, 2024. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

A spokesperson for Ohtani originally told ESPN that the Face of Baseball had transferred the funds to cover Mizuhara’s massive gambling debts and Mizuhara told ESPN in an extensive interview how it all went down and how Ohtani helped him out. ESPN even reviewed bank information showing Ohtani’s name on two $500,000 payments sent in September and October.

Shout out to ESPN for its reporting.

A day later it was all disavowed and Ohtani’s lawyers told ESPN the superstar was a victim of “massive theft.’’

One thing is sure, Ohtani has massive money.

There is the $700 million contract with the Dodgers, mostly deferred, the free agent signed this past offseason and he also makes millions from his endorsements. I’ve heard estimates from $35 million to $65 million.

One of Ohtani’s top endorsements is for New Balance.

The New Balance Ohtani ad campaign for 2024 recently dropped and wouldn’t you know it, there is Ohtani swinging a bat multiple times in some cool studio setting, hat on backwards, with Kool & The Gang singing, “Hey, hey, hey, what you got to say?’’

Yeah, what you got to say, Shohei?

“New Balance. We Got Now,’’ is what Ohtani says in the commercial.

“We Got (Trouble) Now’’ indeed.

No matter how this shakes out it is all such a terrible look for baseball and Ohtani, not just because Ohtani is in the middle of the mess, but because baseball and all sports have a major money love affair with gambling.

Baseball’s biggest star is the middle of a $4.5 million, at least, gambling issue.

You can’t watch 30 seconds of an MLB game without a gambling come-on from one of their betting partnerships and in some ballparks the hope is to turn the ballpark into essentially a casino.

California is one of 12 states that has not legalized sports betting in some form. Even if sports betting was legal in California there still could have been use of a bookie. After all, making a bet with a bookie offers discretion. And you don’t have to have enough money in your “account’’ to cover the bet.

According to reports, Mizuhara was given a $4.5 million credit line, which is something like a scene out of the 1995 movie “Casino.’’

Mizuhara’s relationship with Ohtani, of course, played a major role.

You have to suspend a lot of belief to believe Ohtani had no clue what was going on here. There are so many questions yet to be answered and the MLB Cash Cow that is Ohtani cannot be looked at with the same naïve eyes he was looked at just a week ago.

I’m not going to spout on about Rose or Shoeless Joe until this all shakes out. I will say this, though, it does seem like Ippei and Pete have similar haircuts.

Right now this Ohtani Story is baseball’s biggest problem. But there are other major problems too and as one top baseball man pointed out to me on Saturday, the injury problem continues to get worse and worse and no one questions what is being done by those in charge of baseball.

We are in the Humpty Dumpty Age of baseball.

Like I said, the Bingo Card is filling up fast.

Just take a look at baseball’s highest paid pitchers and their Opening Day status:

No. 1 is Max Scherzer at $43 million and he is on the IL, same goes for the $43 million Justin Verlander. Then there is Jacob deGrom at $40 million. Injured. Next comes Gerrit Cole at $36 million. Injured and despite the optimistic reports from the Yankees, this does not look good for Cole in the long run. And let’s not forget Stephen Strasburg, who will pull in $35 million this season. He’s retired.

Money down the drain.

The list of pitching injuries goes on and on with Kodai Senga, Clayton Kershaw, German Marquez, Walker Buehler, just to name a few, all victims of the current pitching movement. There is another pitcher on the list who makes a ton of money overall, the most money, and is not pitching: a guy named Shohei Ohtani, who has already had two elbow surgeries.

All I can say is Keep Chasing Velocity and bad mechanics, fellas.

Already, 170 players have been injured and only two games have been played. And speaking of pitching did you notice that in Game 1 of the Seoul Series the Padres used eight pitchers, walked nine Dodgers and hit a batter in their 5-2 loss. In Game 2, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Dodgers $325 million acquisition, lasted one inning in his first MLB start and sports a 45.00 ERA.

Hey, it’s early.

All told, the Dodgers and Padres used 13 pitchers in the Padres’ 15-11 win over LA. Thirteen pitchers were used in the first game, too. Lucky 13.

Embarrassing.

“There once were guys who threw 250-300 innings who struck out as many guys as they strike out now against a group of hitters who used to hit .270.”

Yes, the games were earlier than usual but both the Padres and Dodgers showed up to spring training early. What were they doing all that time to get ready?

Just from a baseball standpoint, the Ohtani situation has to weigh on the Dodgers as a significant distraction. Contending teams, supposed super teams, don’t like distractions.

“It’s the Bizarro World,’’ a top talent evaluator told BallNine of all the injuries and the general misuse of pitchers. “And nobody is asking questions about it. How do you feel about the upcoming season is a question that is always asked but it should be: How do you feel about all these injuries? Are you concerned? What do the owners think? You are paying all this money out to injured players. What’s going on? Nobody says a word.’’

Over the last 20 years there has been a takeover in front offices with the pushing out of veteran baseball people in favor of the Ivy League or like graduates who do not have baseball life experience.

As a result, the product is suffering. Players have become much too replaceable and the emphasis on winning is not close to being there with all teams. The human side of the game needs to again take center stage as well.

“The way they move players around, up and down from the minors to the majors, is not good,’’ the evaluator said of the current front office philosophy of pretty much all teams. “The season hasn’t even started yet and some teams are already talking about the shuttle (from the minors to the majors).

“For all the Twitter/X warriors who are always fighting with us ‘experienced’ people who are saying nobody from past eras could hit in this era, well, these guys can’t hit in this era,’’ the baseball man said. “There once were guys who threw 250-300 innings who struck out as many guys as they strike out now against a group of hitters who used to hit .270. Now you have guys who hit collectively under .230 and you have more guys than ever striking out more than 120 times a year.’’

Just for fun I checked the numbers. In 2023 there were 101 players who struck out at least 120 times with Kyle Schwarber leading the way with 215 Ks. Eugenio Suarez was next at 214. Ten years earlier in 2013 there were 54 batters who struck out at least 120 times. Twenty years ago in 2003 there were 26 batters who struck out at least 120 times.

Shohei Ohtani (R) of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his interpreter Ippei Mizuhara attend a press conference in Seoul on March 16, 2024, prior to Major League Baseball's season-opening two-game series. Mizuhara was dismissed on March 20, after allegations surfaced that he stole millions of dollars of Ohtani's money, the Los Angeles Times reported. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Bat to ball skills and the will to not strike out is truly a lost art.

On Thursday the rest of baseball starts their season. March Madness is in full swing while baseball just took a haymaker to the chin with the Ohtani news. Before you know it the NFL draft will take place.

“You couple those two ugly games over there and the guy you marketed as the face of baseball two different countries and around the world, and makes more money in the game now, and then you put together that list of injured pitchers that are opening the season on the Injured List, including Ohtani, and this is what you got,’’ the baseball man said of Opening Week.

It’s not pretty and it could get a lot uglier. Ohtani is Mr. Baseball. He has not been placed on the restricted list so he remains an active superstar.

Two tales were told by Mizuhara. Did he go to Ohtani for help who then paid off the illegal bookmaker or was it as Ohtani’s lawyers have said, the money was stolen. In his second story Mizuhara said that Ohtani knew nothing about the payments.

Meanwhile, as you watch MLB Opening Day and your favorite team you will be bombarded with ads for legal gambling. You will be bombarded with stories about who to bet by media outlets and why and what parlays will pay off. For the states who have legal gambling it will be all at your finger tips.

Betting on players, betting on the game has become part of the game for so many fans. It’s a way of life and in the case of Ippei Mizuhara it swallowed up the incredible life he was living as Ohtani’s right-hand man and interpreter.

Somehow it all got out of hand.

You would think that Ohtani is too big to fail. He’s a Cash Cow for baseball and himself. In so many ways this is such a sad baseball story but it also is a story of 2024 baseball itself with its love affair with gambling.

We Got (Trouble) Now.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

Comments
  • Steve Sankner

    You couldn’t have described a more accurate state of affairs in Baseball today. It’s truly amazing and sad how one commissioner can destroy the game we once knew and loved. Bring back the human element in the game, let the umpires call the game. Video replay should “ONLY” be used to determine if a home run is fair or foul, nothing else.

    March 25, 2024
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