Commissioner uncertain how long MLB investigation of Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani will last

AP photo by Jae C. Hong / Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani runs down the first-base line after hitting a double during the first inning of Thursday's game against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals.
AP photo by Jae C. Hong / Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani runs down the first-base line after hitting a double during the first inning of Thursday's game against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals.

Rob Manfred hopes Major League Baseball's investigation of Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani will be short, but the commissioner isn't certain it will work out that way.

MLB announced its investigation last Friday, after the Dodgers fired Ohtani's interpreter and friend, Ippei Mizuhara, in the wake of reports from the Los Angeles Times and ESPN about his alleged ties to an illegal bookmaker and debts of well more than $1 million. Ohtani said Monday he never bet on sports or knowingly paid any gambling debts accumulated by Mizuhara.

"Given the way the story unfolded, it's important in terms of assuring our fans about the integrity of the game that we verify the things that Mr. Ohtani has said, and it's really that simple," Manfred said Thursday on the MLB Network.

Although MLB's 2024 regular season officially opened last week when the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres split a pair of games in Seoul, South Korea, most of the other teams in the majors opened Thursday. Two openers originally set for Thursday, the New York Mets hosting the Milwaukee Brewers and the Philadelphia Phillies hosting the Atlanta Braves, were moved to Friday due to rain in the forecast, with those postponements announced Wednesday.

Thursday's games included the Dodgers winning 7-1 against the St. Louis Cardinals as Ohtani reached base three times in his regular-season home debut with his new team. A two-time American League MVP who has starred as both a pitcher and a hitter, the 29-year-old from Japan spent his first six seasons in the majors with the Los Angeles Angels before signing with the National League's Dodgers in the offseason.

The IRS has confirmed that Mizuhara and Mathew Bowyer, the alleged illegal bookmaker, are under criminal investigation through the agency's Los Angeles field office.

"It's really difficult for the federal authorities to cooperate with us fully when they have their own ongoing investigation, so I think this is one where we'll have to proceed on our own," Manfred said,

MLB has limited ability to compel cooperation.

"We never have the kind of authority that law enforcement people have, but we manage to get these investigations done and find the facts, and I'm sure we will on this one," Manfred said.

Asked about the length of the investigation, Manfred said: "I hope short, but I just don't know."

Manfred defended the commercial relationships MLB and its teams have with legal gambling companies.

"Sports betting is going to go on in the United States whether we have a relationship with any particular company, any gambling enterprise, or not," he said. "I don't think it's unusual to have a set of rules that apply to fans and executives and private citizens out there on the one hand, and players and people who have the ability to affect the outcome of the play on the field."

"There are all sorts of situations in which you have a privilege, in this case the privilege to play in Major League Baseball, and that comes with a responsibility to refrain from engaging in certain types of behavior, in this case gambling, that are legal for other people," he added.

Manfred also discussed the uncertainty in revenue from regional sports networks. After the bankruptcy filing last year of Diamond Sports' Bally networks, MLB took over local broadcasts of the Padres and the Arizona Diamondbacks last season and is producing and distributing their telecasts this year along with those of the Colorado Rockies.

"Local media is about 25% of our revenue," Manfred said. "There's absolutely no question that that particular revenue stream is challenged right now, but we see it as a trough. There's going to be a little downtick here, but we believe over the long haul ... clubs will be back to and beyond where they have been historically."

"Everybody is to some extent affected by the changes that are going in the cable bundle," he added. "The clubs that have actually seen revenue declines would be Seattle, Colorado, San Diego, Arizona, and then small declines in Texas, Minnesota and Cleveland."

Manfred said local media contributed to a slower free-agent market that led to some top players getting shorter-term contracts.

"We have a market-based system," he said, "and when you have issues like the RSN issue ... that affect a significant number of teams and all the teams see problems on that horizon, it's going to affect the market for players. It has to.

"I think the players understand that they bargained for a market system and that markets are going to vary year to year. I think the bigger issue in terms of talking with players is making sure they understand what's going on with respect to local media so they can appreciate the impact that it has on the market."

Manfred also said MLB is planning for Willie Mays, who turns 93 in May, to attend the June 20 game between the San Francisco Giants and the Cardinals being played in his honor at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. The 10,800-seat stadium, opened in 1910, is the oldest professional ballpark in the country and was home to the Birmingham Black Barons from 1924-60.

Mays, an Alabama native, began his professional career with the team in 1948. He spent the bulk of his MLB career with the Giants in New York and San Francisco and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a first-ballot selection in 1979.

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