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Shohei Ohtani and Baseball's Recurring Nightmare

The superstar’s arrival with the Dodgers was supposed to be a turning point for baseball, but now the sport must grapple with another scandal that threatens to undermine its integrity



In December of 2023, the axis of power in baseball was set to experience a seismic shift. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who have won over 100 games in five of the last six full MLB seasons, signed superstar Shohei Ohtani to a 10-year $700 million contract To a roster that already was filled with All-Stars. This move ensured that not only would the Dodgers be the favorites to win the World Series this year, but were set up to be a baseball dynasty for years to come.


Ohtani was the most sought-after free agent since Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers at the turn of the century. Ohtani has been compared to Babe Ruth, the rare player that can pitch and hit at an incredibly high level. The fact that he went from a franchise that does not have a ton of history (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) to one of the most prestigious franchises in baseball’s history was a tremendous win for Major League Baseball. That optimism has now been shattered as there have been reports of a potential gambling scandal that surrounds Ohtani and his former interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. The scandal comes at the worst possible time for baseball, presenting a roadblock for its return to popularity as its most important player is grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons.

 

The Importance of Ohtani



Before he signed with the Dodgers, it was accepted that Shohei Ohtani is a supernova. A player that is unlike anything we have seen in baseball for many decades. There has long been a separation in the sport between pitchers and the rest of the team. Where players play the other eight positions typically play every day, pitchers play more sparingly to preserve the viability of their arms. Ohtani is the rare kind of player that hits the ball well and is also an excellent pitcher. He has consistently been a player that bats around a 300 average and maintains an earned run average (ERA) of three. This versatility has earned Ohtani two MVP awards and three All-Star selections.


His ability on offense and defense is incredibly unique and is one of the few players that impacts the outcome of games more than an average player ever could. He represents the potential of folklore that baseball fans and historians love, a player that future generations will be telling their children about. As a collective sports monolith we have an affinity for players that do more than the average. It is why we idolized Babe Ruth and applauded when Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson played baseball and football. We simply cannot stop loving larger than life figures that can do it all, and Ohtani seemed to be the next iteration of that ideal.


Beyond that, Ohtani is also a great representative for Japanese players in the MLB. We have seen great players come to America from Japan such as Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish, and Ichiro Suzuki. It was evident that Ohtani was the next in a long line of excellent talent from Japan in the States. Ohtani’s signing with the Dodgers was something that the MLB needed from a marketing perspective. They had one of their best players going to one of their most important franchises. On top of that, he was signing in Los Angeles which has the largest Japanese population in the world for a city outside of Japan. For a league that has desperately tried and failed to engage a younger generation, baseball needed this win more than some might realize.


A Struggling League



Baseball in the United States has drifted into the third most watched sport behind football and basketball, and it is not too outlandish to think that soccer might pass it up within the next decade. The sport has issues resonating with younger generations who have written the game off as being boring and not exciting enough.


We have seen changes made to the games rules to attempt to combat this with the implementation of the pitch clock and elimination of the defensive shift. Despite these efforts, the average age of baseball fans has continued to rise, indicative of the sports inability to properly market the game to younger fans. Part of its issue has been the dispersal of baseball rights with Peacock, Apple TV+, MLB TV, ESPN, and FOX all having different rights to air baseball games throughout its long season (which could be considered another issue in its own right). Perhaps more than anything else, however, the lack of an identifiable superstar is what is hurting the league the most.


Sports in America have been grappling with a case of silent xenophobia in recent years. Baseball has perhaps felt it the worst of all the major sports. The current player population in the MLB consists of 30% Latinx players, which is crucial to consider since there has been renewed hostility by a large contingent of Americans towards Mexican immigrants and other Latin American cultures. This brewing distaste by the American population is only exaggerated by the fact that many players give interviews in their native tongue and need a translator.


But talent has a funny way of letting us forget about these disturbing realities from time to time. Shohei Ohtani seemed like the talent that could break through all the noise and get people interested in baseball again. This scandal, however, complicates things. Many will write think pieces and record podcast episodes about how evil the influx of sports betting adoption into major leagues is harmful. But the true disaster of one of baseball’s most recognized players being so close to a gambling scandal is the fact that the MLB can’t seem to get away from nefarious headlines.


The Persistent Dark Cloud Around Baseball



I was 11 years old in 1998, and that summer I was glued to the television watching baseball. It wasn’t because the Mets or Yankees (I grew up in New York City) were doing anything particularly amazing, but instead it was what two power hitters were doing in St. Louis and Chicago. That summer was one that many remember as the great home run record chase, where Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing history to surpass the single season home run record that was set by Roger Maris in 1961.


That chase and that moment brought baseball back from the despair of the 1994 season that canceled the World Series due to a strike. Baseball was all that anyone was talking about nationally, and it became THE sports story of 1998. In retrospect, it was also the moment in history that made baseball lose much of its credibility in the eyes of many fans. The home run chase of 1998 became the poster child for the steroid era in baseball. A period where players like McGwire, Sosa, Jose Canseco, and many others were found guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs to increase body mass, hitting power, and reaction time.


The fallout of the steroid era left many players during the early 2000s with questionable reputations and some of the great performers of that era have been denied entry into the Hall of Fame as a result. Many still have not forgiven baseball for the way they lacked proper testing, enjoyed the fruits of the media attention, and put the blame on others in the wake of the scandal. Baseball has not been a stranger to other scandals as well, particularly gambling which makes this Ohtani story so troubling for the league. There is of course the infamous banning of Pete Rose from baseball due to his gambling on his own games as a player and manager, and also the game fixing scandal of the Chicago Black Sox in the early 20th century.


The court of public opinion has seemingly started to presume the guilt of Shohei Ohtani, whether he knew about what his interpreter was doing or not. Many seem to feel that he has been tainted and that just like in the steroid era all baseball players are in some way or another, dirty. Ohtani has always been an incredibly private and humble person by all accounts, to the point that some would call him boring. He seems to be the last player that would be involved in something as damaging as a gambling scandal, and we must wait to see what the MLB’s investigation finds before casting final judgment.


What we do know is that this is another body blow for baseball to navigate. The signing of Ohtani was supposed to be a momentous occasion, and instead it has turned into yet another nightmare. A disaster for a league that simply does not have the capacity to withstand many more of them. For the optimist, the hope is that the investigation will be swift and determine that there was just a rogue agent in Ohtani’s camp, and out of loyalty he suffered the consequences of a massive blind spot. But for the cynic, you can’t help but think this is another instance of the MLB tripping over its own feet. I am hoping it is the former, because fans deserve to enjoy the greatness of Shohei Ohtani without having to worry about yet another asterisk. 



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