Ohtani-Mizuhara vs. Rose

Barely a week after I received an advance copy of Kevin O'Brien's Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball, there came a scandal that provokes yet another round of social media demands that Rose be let off the hook for that which does not yet apply incontrovertibly to baseball's biggest contemporary star.

Barely did the Dodgers come away from their unusual regular-season opening in Korea with a 5-2 win over the Padres when news exploded that the Dodgers handed a pink slip to Shohei Othani's longtime friend and interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, over accusations involving sports gambling.

The least confusing portion is that Mizuhara used Ohtani's money to cover gambling debts incurred in California, where sports betting remains illegal. But one moment, Mizuhara claimed Ohtani wired the money to cover before. In another moment, Ohtani's attorneys claimed Mizhuara somehow stole the money from Ohtani's account.

What seems to be the unspoken-but-agreed-upon point is that, until now, nobody had Othani on any gambling radar. Right there it should drive the Rose case comparisons away. As O'Brien's book reminds us, Rose had a gambling habit rooted in childhood excursions to race tracks watching his father bet the horses and matured into gambling with street bookmakers. Gambling that was on his team's and then his entire sport's radar long before he graduated to the kind of betting that prompted baseball to investigate him formally and banish him permanently.

Mizuhara may face legal penalties for his sports bettings through an Orange County bookie, but nobody's yet accusing him of betting on baseball itself — either on his own or on behalf of Ohtani — and making it stick. Everything tumbled out both so quickly and so clumsily that building a timeline must be a chore for those who try.

Rose's remaining partisans aboard social media (and elsewhere, perhaps) seem to think the foregoing alone should mean re-opening the Rose case and ramming him into the Hall of Fame. To many of them, Rose could shoot someone on Cincinnati's Vine Street and still not lose sycophants. They seem blissfully devoid of accepting that only one man is responsible for Rose's continuing status.

I don't know if O'Brien's book will change the minds of those who insist, despite that mountain range of evidence, that the Rose case deserves a review whenever any scandalous baseball behavior — gambling or otherwise — comes to light. More's the pity. A longtime journalist from the Boston Globe to NPR, O'Brien has provided a deeper look into the wherefores of Rose's life in and out of baseball than just about any previous volume.

O'Brien is a Cincinnatian himself who admits right out of the gate that he, like most Cincinnatians are presumed to do, has "felt every emotion" about Rose: "[P]ride, disgust, frustration, pity, and confusion. Only one thing hasn't changed over the years: my fascination with his story. He was Icarus in red stirrup socks and cleats. He was the American dream sliding headfirst into third. He was both a miracle and a disaster, and he still is today."

It's arguable that no great player of Rose's time was quite as self-made, quite as bent to play above and beyond his natural endowments. Maybe no great player was as solipsistically reckless, either. The longer Rose proved and re-proved himself at the plate and on the field as the junkyard dog who could hang with and overthrow those snooty Westminster Kennel Club hounds, the deeper became his belief that he was invulnerable to accountability for his risky, rakish, and reckless off-field pursuits.

His own Reds employers feared for his safety once they began catching the winds that Rose's gambling habits weren't just limited to the racetracks. Betting with bookies, betting on sports, gradually betting through a Brooklyn bookie named Michael Bertolini who placed Rose's bets with other New York bookies and kept meticulous notebooks recording Rose's baseball betting — including on his own team — at least as early as April 1985, when he was the Reds' player-manager.

"A manager betting on his own team could harm the game, even if he was betting on the team to win," O'Brien writes, well aware that Rule 21(d) does not distinguish between betting on or against one's team.

He could overuse a pitcher or refuse to rest a starter in pursuit of his own financial gain, and what he wagered — or didn't wager — could move markets in the underworld. Bertolini's bookies in New York surely noticed when Berto was betting against Pete. Any bookie in that situation would have been justified to wonder if Berto had inside information that would make it worthwhile to go against the Reds that night. The bookies also surely noticed when Pete didn't bet on the Reds at all. He wasn't betting against his team; he just wasn't betting on them. On multiple days, according the notebook, Pete sat it out, not wagering on the Reds after having done it the day before or earlier that week. It was another thing that could move markets in the underworld. And his debts — his mounting debts recorded in the notebook — were especially troubling. An athlete in arrears to a bookie is an athlete in danger of being owned by that bookie, a kept man, beholden. It was the reason why baseball had its rule against gambling in the first place and the reason why that rule — Rule 21(d) — was posted in every clubhouse, including the Reds' clubhouse at Riverfront Stadium.

Independent journalist (and former NBC Sports analyst) Craig Calcaterra says there are three possibilities regarding the Mizuhara-Ohtani situation:

Possibility 1) "Mizuhara is a compulsive gambler who got in way, way over his head with a bookie to pay the bookie off, he effected either one or several massive wire transfers from Ohtani's account without authorization. He got busted, he got fired, and he's about to be in a world of federal legal trouble and will almost certainly be permanently banned from holding a job in Major League Baseball." Which is, Calcaterra acknowledges, the story Ohtani's legal team presents.

Possibility 2) "These were Mizuhara's gambling debts and, as per his and the spokesperson's comments to ESPN, Ohtani felt bad for him, wanted to help him out, and covered his debts by transferring the money to the bookie . . . If this is what happened, Ohtani will be in pretty big trouble both with the feds and with Major League Baseball." Rule 21(f) gives baseball's commissioner discretion in punishing a player, manager, coach, clubhouse worker, front-office person who's gambled or otherwise associated with illegal bookmakers. (Leo Durocher once learned the hard way, when then-commissioner Happy Chandler suspended him for 1947.)

"A player paying a bookie for a team employee's illegal gambling debts, and doing so via means that represent federal crimes, creates an astounding amount of risk and would seriously damage the game," Calcaterra writes. "If this were to be born out and Manfred did nothing, he'd basically be [urinating] all over baseball's single most important off-the-field rule."

Possibility 3) "These were Ohtani's gambling debts and Mizuhara is taking a bullet for his patron . . . If this were the case it would be the biggest baseball scandal since the Black Sox, right? Ohtani would not only be in criminal jeopardy for illegal gambling but he'd probably face a permanent ban from the game. It'd be absolutely massive and would upend professional sports for a very, very long time."

Having presented those three possibilities, Calcaterra thinks of them thus:

1) Too many assumptions must be made to make stick a thought that Mizuhara managed to mulct Ohtani's money without a proven say-so.

2) It's the simplest of the three prospects, not to mention it "flows with what we all want to think about Ohtani being a decent guy and a loyal friend which is something none of us know for a fact, obviously, but we've never been given reason to doubt it either, all of my usual 'we don't know anyone, not that well' disclaimers notwithstanding."

3) Highly doubtful, sans evidence. "Again, I know none of us know anyone," Calcaterra continues, "but nothing we know about Ohtani suggests that he's reckless, impulsive, or, frankly, stupid enough for this kind of business. It'd be the biggest heel-turn in the history of sports (non-professional wrestling edition), and it just does not compute for me at all."

Meanwhile, it's wise to remember that just because MLB has entered into promotional relationships with legal sports betting outfits on and offline, that doesn't mean players, managers, coaches, clubhouse workers, or front-office personnel can just bet on baseball any old time they choose it. Fans can bet on baseball to their heart's content, anywhere and any time they want. Baseball personnel can't.

They can bet on anything else they want, from March Madness to a college fraternity's cockroach races. But they can't do it through unauthorized or illegal bookmakers. And Rule 21(d) hasn't been and won't likely be superseded or repealed.

I repeat: nothing credible has emerged to show Mizuhara or Ohtani betting on baseball, even though Ohtani's partisans (they, too, are legion) know what a terrible look this week's eruption holds. But the concurrent noise insisting that this, too, is yet another reason Pete Rose deserves a pardon and his plaque in Cooperstown, is just that. Noise.

If Rule 21(d) plus the Hall of Fame's block on Hall ballot appearances for anyone on MLB's permanently-ineligible list can't quell such noise, you'd like to think Mr. O'Brien's forthcoming book should. Should, but, alas, probably won't.

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