Shohei Ohtani, Pete Rose, and MLB’s Messy Gambling History

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Major League Baseball has the precise problem it doesn’t want to have right now. Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese two-way superstar who is the most interesting baseball player in modern memory, is at the center of a gambling scandal. The gist of what’s known: someone wired $4.5 million from Ohtani’s bank account to a sports betting operation run by Matthew Bowyer, an Orange County bookmaker whose operations have attracted the attention of the FBI. 

From here, it gets murky. Ippei Mizuhara, Ohtani’s longtime friend and now-former translator, claimed in an interview with ESPN that he had gotten in deep with Bowyer, and that Ohtani, who recently signed a $700 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, merely helped to get him out of the hole when he feared for his safety. Ohtani’s camp said the same thing. Mizuhara claimed that he started betting on DraftKings (but not on baseball), that he met Bowyer at a party and took advantage of his services, and that he didn’t know Bowyer’s operation was illegal. 

At first it seemed like this was the story of public record. But then, Ohtani started claiming he did not give Mizuhara the money freely and that Mizuhara actually stole the money from Ohtani to cover the debt. There are a lot of questions about what Ohtani knew and what information Mizuhara had and was not properly relaying to him, as well as, of course, broader speculation about what’s really going on here. Why was Ohtani seen laughing in the dugout with Mizuhara as all of this was unfolding? Why did he change his story to claim that the money was stolen? Why does it appear his camp has not contacted authorities about the alleged theft?

Ohtani recently claimed to reporters that he has never bet on baseball or any other sport, and that he was “shocked and saddened” by the allegations against Mizuhara — but the story still doesn’t add up.  

MLB is promising to investigate, and they don’t seem all that enthusiastic about it. No one is going to be terribly satisfied if the league winds up concluding Ohtani did nothing wrong, and implications and snickers will follow him for the rest of career. One man, in particular, has already taken to snickering on the internet. “Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s I wish I’d had an interpreter. I’d be scot free,” Pete Rose, the most infamous gambler in the history of the sport, said in a video posted online. 

Rose is conveniently ignoring the fact that he did the exact thing that he is accusing Ohtani of doing: registering massive bets through lackeys. He did this for years and confirmed that he bet on baseball games he was managing, leading MLB to impose a lifetime ban on one of its greatest players to cap a scandal that fundamentally changed the relationship between the game and its fans. The very cynicism Rose is peddling from under his all-white Reds hat is partially a product of his own malfeasance. 

Rose’s indiscretions, MLB taking years to care to do anything about them, and his downfall after the FBI’s involvment forced the league to take action burst the veneer of sanctity surrounding the game, creating a landscape of suspicion in which fans are constantly questioning what’s really going on behind the scenes. The fact that baseball recently started openly celebrating gambling on the game makes Ohtani’s situation particularly uncomfortable. DraftKings, the app Mizuhara says primed himself for a gambling addiction, was once a valued partner of the league. FanDuel supplanted them, and the sports book’s odds are now appearing alongside highlight videos posted by official team social media accounts. It’s all very unseemly.

The dynamics have changed dramatically, but gambling has always been a part of baseball. In “Baseball in the Garden of Eden,” John Thron’s canonical study of the early days of the game, Thorn makes one thing about the development of the national pastime crystal clear: the popularity of the sport, especially among adults, was intimately tied to gambling. Early sports fandom wasn’t this wholesome, pastoral thing the way we think about it as we play Ken Burns mandolin tracks over our memories. Why else would they keep all those statistics, print all those box scores, if not to give people raw material to seek the juice of the bet? It was about gambling.

In the 20th century, as the game dug deeper and deeper into the American psyche, people started to resent this fact. It spun out of control after the Black Sox scandal, and when another world historic dickhead, Tigers slugger Ty Cobb, got mixed up in a separate game fixing incident. The first commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, sought to clean up the game. He exiled the Black Sox forever, banned players from betting on baseball, and set forth the new path for the pro game to walk — not as a pile of low-stakes fun that could be gambled on, but as an American Institution That Must be Protected. Soon, George Herman Ruth, The Babe, would appear on the scene, sock dingers, become the world’s first mass media celebrity athlete, and forge the Age of Heroes in baseball. 

That’s not to say that people stopped betting on baseball, or that the game even stopped catering to gamblers’ interest: box scores still came out, talk of betting lines was still tolerated. But where once it was all very obvious what we were doing here, it now became more subtle, more irritating as a public matter. This is the environment in which Pete Rose becomes a professional baseball player, and one that, as Keith O’Brien argues in his new book, “Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose and the Last Glory Days of Baseball,” he would eventually tear down.

O’Brien had gambling on his mind when he first started working on his book on Rose in 2021. “Even when I started this project, the world had changed so much since 1989, when Pete was banned,” he says. “But I had no idea that the book would be released amidst another gambling scandal, a story that surrounds the biggest name in baseball — no one would have expected that. But the fact that we’re facing a gambling scandal in baseball and also in basketball is not surprising at all. In my interviews with all of the men who investigated Pete Rose in 1989, all of them have been predicting another scandal.” 

Gambling on sports was once difficult and unsavory, but in the last five years, since the Supreme Court struck down a federal law prohibiting states from legalizing sports betting, the zone has been absolutely flooded by apps. “We legally gambled on sports to the tune of $120 billion last year,” O’Brien says. “That’s a new record. We very likely will break that record this year. We set new records at the Super Bowl this year, for the number of people who bet, the amount of handle [money] that was wagered, all new records. I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going.”

What better time, he says, to revisit the most notorious gambler in the history of professional sports?

“I feel like, all too often, Pete’s story has been seen through the prism of baseball,” O’Brien says. It’s true: there’s a lot more baseball in Pete Rose than you can imagine. He played in the majors for a whopping 24 seasons, notched 4,256 hits (an MLB record, in case you haven’t heard), played five different defensive positions, made 17 all-star games, won three World Series, and dominated the psychic landscape of the sport for two decades. Instead of fixating on all that, O’Brien says he “wanted to look at it through the prism of a man.” The prism does not make rainbows, in case you were wondering. The light instead produces a Lovecraftian eye, unknowable colors straight from the darkest depths of the human spirit. 

Rose wanted it all: money, sex (including with an underaged fan), victory, raw baseball statistics (Pete obsessed over his totals), on-field victories, expensive cars, fame. Pete devoured it all at a concerning pace, a monstrous crow picking over life’s endless open dumpster. But the biggest, craziest sucking pit, was that of gambling on sports. Rose made gigantic, stupid bets, over and over, racing up massive debts with illegal books that had huge bankrolls. He was an addict, and an addict at the highest level is addicted to risk itself, the feeling of dumping an irresponsible amount of money or time into a void that may or may not pay it back to you. Rose was hopeless, totally convinced of his invincibility, sitting on an infinite capacity to engineer a bigger and bigger bankroll.

O’Brien suspects that, maybe, if Major League Baseball or the Reds had intervened in the ‘70s, they could have kept him from crashing the plane. Everyone knew Rose gambled too much, on sports in particular. A decade before the FBI got involved, the league knew that Rose’s betting both exposed him to bookies who might be willing to extort him and violate the integrity of the game, or get so bad that he might start betting on baseball. Eventually, the FBI gets him, he gets banned from baseball for life, held out of the Hall of Fame, imprisoned in a gilded cage in the desert, signing Sisyphus’ baseball until the grave calls him. You are pretty sure he deserves it.

It wouldn’t be the last time baseball sat on its hands while a crisis that threatened the integrity of the game emerged. The institution was very laissez-faire about sluggers getting homunculoid jacked early in the steroid era, and were shocked, shocked, when the BALCO story broke. The Houston Astros ran a trash-can-related sign stealing scandal all the way to a world title, and the commissioner’s office didn’t make a peep about it for another three years afterward — and even when it did, many felt that the franchise got off easy. This is not a track record that inspires confidence in their Ohtani investigation. The prospect of a thorough, satisfying accounting for what happened becomes even more dubious when you consider Ohtani’s value to the league as a generational, international superstar.

Pete Rose speaks during a news conference at Pete Rose Bar & Grill to respond to his lifetime ban from MLB for gambling being upheld on Dec. 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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“Charlie Hustle” begins with Rose getting his (derisive) nickname from Mickey Mantle, and ends with Mark McGwire jabbing a needle into his own asscheek. Rose played from 1963 to 1986. During this time, baseball underwent staggering changes. The first and biggest of these changes, O’Brien says, was money: “The money changes everything. In baseball, as in most things in life. Baseball goes from being a raw, unpolished sport in the ‘60s, filled with rough and tumble characters who often had to work offseason jobs to make ends meet, to becoming a multi-billion dollar sport in 1989.” 

Rose made seven grand in his first season in the bigs and played in Venezuela during the offseason to supplement his meager pay. By 1989, he was netting a cool mil as a busted-ass player-manager. The sports business changed in two major ways over this time. First, the advent of Marvin Miller’s reign of hellfire for the MLB players union delivered free agency, allowing players to serve out their initial contract, hit the market, and get the Yankees to pay you millions. Second was the dual advent of cable television and the massive national television contract, both of which flooded the game with cash. “The corporatization of sports changes the game,” O’Brien says. 

“I wanna be clear,” O’Brien adds, “I am a proponent of free agency. What was in place prior to free agency was wrong. But when it happened, fans were upset. When Shohei Ohtani signed a $700 million deal, people were upset. When Pete Rose signed a $3.2 million deal, people were upset. That puts so much distance between players and the fans.”

This distance, says O’Brien, created a different appetite for news about athletes. It was filled by investigative units at places like Sports Illustrated, who bared down hard on Pete’s gambling adventures where they were previously ignored by player-friendly beat writers, or in Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” a stately tell-all about how athletes were horny as hell, or the emergence of the sports talk radio circuit, where our gauzy reverence for the player of the past is replaced by a firehose of petty weirdos with idiosyncratic, deeply uninformed takes on every little thing that happens in a game. 

“Pete Rose in 1989 is a fault line.” O’Brien says, nodding to the book’s subtitle. “I think you can argue that everything before Pete feels like the Age of the Heroes, even if they were never really pure heroes, and everything after 1989 is sort of the age of the cheater, where we’re always wondering: What’s really happening? How’d they really do that? Is it real?” 

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If Pete Rose, a short little goblin-looking man with a fucked up batting stance and a weird bowl cut, seems like a guy out of a Pynchon novel, that’s because he is the mile marker for sports’ head first tumble into the logic of late capitalism, where everything feels unknowable and conspiracy stalks your mind at all time. This is the mode of cultural consumption where Major League Baseball has, time and again, failed to offer even a simulacra of transparency on a world where everything stands in suspicion. Not with steroids, not with cheating, and, most unnervingly of all, not with gambling. The double standard is on display in every stadium in the league: a sign in the locker room tells players not to bet on baseball, while a sign in the arena tells everyone in the world that betting on baseball is cool, and fun, and the only way to really enjoy the game.

Even if nothing ultimately comes of the Ohtani scandal, the contradictions can’t hold forever.



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