How Ohtani's interpreter Mizuhara became players' lifeline

Feds accuse Ohtani's ex-interpreter of $16M theft (2:25)

Federal authorities allege ex-interpreter Ippei Mizuhara stole over $16 million from Shohei Ohtani to settle gambling debts. (2:25)

MICHAEL CROTTA DIDN'T know anybody or much of anything when he arrived to play professional baseball in Sapporo, Japan, in February 2014. His lack of knowledge of a new culture, and a little nervousness at the prospect of assimilating into it, caused him to show up about three weeks before spring training began for his new team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Almost immediately, he had help. One of the team's two interpreters showed up every day from the time Crotta arrived until spring training started. He showed Crotta how to get a subway card and taught him the logistics of getting around the city. He took him to the grocery store more than once that first week, telling him what he liked to eat, what he liked to cook, how to navigate the aisles and shelves. They would go up and down the rows, and the interpreter would patiently explain how the store was laid out and how the Japanese words on the labels translated to English. Crotta remembers hearing, "This is what this says," so many times it almost became an earworm.

Crotta and the interpreter were both 29, so there was some commonality. Crotta showed up near the end of the weeklong Sapporo Snow Festival, and his new friend took him there so he could experience the biggest cultural event on the island of Hokkaido. He taught Crotta the ins and outs of ordering at a Japanese restaurant, knowing, as Crotta says, "It's extremely humbling when you can't do it yourself."

The interpreter was Ippei Mizuhara, now under federal indictment and charged with bank fraud for allegedly stealing more than $16 million of Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani's money to pay off gambling debts incurred through Southern California sports bookmaker Mathew Bowyer. Born in Japan and raised in Southern California from the time he was 7, the son of Orange County restaurateurs, Mizuhara's first job in professional sports was as an interpreter for the Fighters, with which he spent five seasons (2013-17) helping the team's American players. His tenure began Ohtani's rookie year, and in 2018, when Ohtani left the Fighters for Major League Baseball and the Los Angeles Angels, Mizuhara joined him. He spent the past six years as Ohtani's interpreter and personal assistant before being fired in March when the scandal over his admitted gambling addiction came to light.

With the interpreter gig in Japan, Mizuhara seemed to have found his path in life. He graduated from Diamond Bar High School, in eastern Los Angeles County, in 2003 and worked a variety of jobs before finding a way to combine his language skills and love of sports to set out on a career. (Along the way, he falsely claimed to have attended and graduated from University of California, Riverside; university spokesperson Sandra Martinez says nobody by that name was ever enrolled.) In high school, he appears to have left a minimal footprint. He was on the soccer team -- the third-string goalkeeper who almost never played but enjoyed the game and always showed up for practice. "I don't even remember if he ever got into a game," says Kemp Wells, who was an assistant coach at the time. Mizuhara was unmemorable as a student, too: quiet, self-sufficient, definitely not someone his teachers or classmates expected to see splashed across every news platform in the country.

"When it comes to students, I tend to remember the really good ones and the really bad ones," says Wells, who taught Mizuhara senior-year English. "And he was neither. Just kept his head down and did his work."

(The school recently scrubbed Mizuhara from the "Distinguished Alumni" section of its website, and sources say there was a "soft blackout" at the school when it came to reporters' inquiries about him.)

Three of the American players who worked closely with Mizuhara and consider him to be a friend -- Crotta, Mitch Lively and Red Sox reliever Chris Martin -- were reluctant to opine on how Mizuhara ended up in a federal courtroom in Los Angeles last Friday, his legs shackled. The 6-foot-8 Martin, towering over everyone in the visitors clubhouse in the Oakland Coliseum, shakes his head and says, "I obviously don't have a lot to say, because I just don't know. My wife and I are looking at Ippei's face all over the news, looking at each other and saying, 'This is wild.' We've been in shock. The theft thing is what throws me off. Obviously things change and people change, but I can't get my head around that part."

OHTANI AND MIZUHARA were nearly inseparable for Ohtani's first six years in the major leagues. In fact, it often seemed the most public aspect of Mizuhara's job -- translating from English to Japanese and vice versa during media interviews -- was the least important. As an employee of both Ohtani's team and Ohtani himself, Mizuhara wore many hats while notably wearing none, choosing to let his moptop flow untamed. He was a training partner, a butler and a confidant. He often drove Ohtani to the ballpark and took care of mundane off the field business: groceries, monthly bills, scheduling. He oversaw Ohtani's pregame routine before starts on the mound and provided him with information on opposing pitchers from the bench or the on-deck circle. And, as we now know from federal investigators, he had access to at least one of Ohtani's bank accounts, which he allegedly used to siphon money to pay off a staggering amount of gambling debt: 19,000 bets in roughly 26 months beginning in November 2021, more than $142 million wins and almost $183 million in losses.

The federal affidavit against Mizuhara depicts a relationship predicated on complete trust, a trust Mizuhara spun to his advantage. He is accused of not only funneling money from one of Ohtani's bank accounts to pay off his losses, but directing the money from any winnings back to his own. He allegedly impersonated Ohtani in phone calls to the bank in order to get massive wire transfers approved without Ohtani's knowledge. He is also accused of hiding any activity from that account, not only from Ohtani but his agent and business manager, as well. Somehow, perhaps because Ohtani's representatives with powerhouse agency CAA were just as dependent on Mizuhara as Ohtani -- agent Nez Balelo apparently employed no other Japanese-speaking interpreter -- they apparently accepted his version as the truth.

Martin was interviewed on the "Baseball Isn't Boring" podcast March 13, a week before news of the gambling scandal broke. The tone was lighthearted and breezy. Asked about his time in Japan with Mizuhara, he said, "All of my trust was in Ippei, and that was a lot of trust."

Mizuhara's time in Sapporo, where he worked as one of two team-employed interpreters for the four American players each NPB team is allowed to employ, mirrored his work with Ohtani in one important aspect: He took on a variety of duties that spread far beyond the narrow confines implied by his job title. American players arriving in Japan for the first time were often insulated and vulnerable. The broad range of services required from an interpreter shows how a person entrusted with the responsibility can facilitate -- or infiltrate -- the life of a player dependent on his language skills.

"He was my lifeline over there," Lively says. "The translators are literally an extension of you. You don't have a means of communicating, no means of filling out paperwork. You can't live without them, and I looked at them as my friends, not team employees."

Mizuhara helped players arrange for work visas before arriving in Japan. He took Lively to a local bank and helped him set up an account where his paycheck could be deposited. He accompanied Martin and his wife, Danielle, to ultrasound appointments after she got pregnant during the season. "Interpreters know a lot about you," Martin says. "He was right there with us in the ultrasounds, making sure we knew everything that was going on. You don't think anything of it."

At the ballpark, American players relied on an interpreter to translate every conversation with a teammate or the manager or one of the coaches. Any type of instruction -- bunt coverages, scouting reports, even things as simple as stretching drills -- was funneled through an interpreter.

"I would have been completely lost without Ippei," Crotta says. "Not just in baseball, but day-to-day life."

Crotta spent the first season in Sapporo by himself while his then-wife and young son remained at the family's home in Florida. But after the Fighters' spring training in Okinawa ended the following March, Crotta's wife, pregnant with the couple's second child, traveled to Japan with their son to spend the season as a family. Mizuhara, concerned they might have difficulty navigating the plane change in the massive Narita airport, took the extraordinary step of flying from Sapporo to Tokyo to meet up with them and accompany them on the final leg of their journey.

"It wasn't something I expected at all," says Crotta, who assumes the team paid for Mizuhara's time and flights. "That wasn't really part of his job, but that's the kind of guy he was."

Crotta, who pitched in 15 games for the Pirates in 2011 and spent the next seven years trying unsuccessfully to get back to the big leagues, has more stories, and he seems eager to tell them, perhaps as a means of working through what he's learned over the past few weeks. There was the time Mizuhara found out Crotta's son was infatuated with animals and arranged for tickets and transportation for the family to go to the Sapporo Maruyama Zoo on a Fighters' off day, and the time Mizuhara helped Crotta and his wife find a kindergarten school for their son, and the time the boy fell ill and Mizuhara called to arrange a doctor's appointment and then went with them to make sure they understood everything the doctor was saying.

"There are so many things you take for granted until you find yourself in a situation where you can't communicate with 98 percent of the population," Crotta says. "There were a lot of things I wouldn't have experienced without him. He definitely went out of his way to make sure I experienced as much of the culture as I wanted to."

Due in no small part to Mizuhara's influence, Crotta, now a commercial insurance salesman in the Tampa area, says he enjoyed his time in Japan so much that he would have stayed there and gotten a job in baseball if he could have become more conversant in the language. "I loved it there," he says. "And there are a lot of things I wouldn't have experienced without Ippei."

Lively retired last year after 16 seasons of professional baseball, including 11 regular- or winter-league seasons in Latin America and Asia. He remained in touch with Mizuhara after leaving Japan; they continued to play in the same fantasy football league until a few years ago, and Lively texted him regularly through Ohtani's move to the Dodgers.

Lively is speaking from his home in Susanville, California, the day Mizuhara was charged and the day before he appeared in shackles before the court and ordered to undergo gambling addiction treatment. Like the others, Lively is trying to square the person he knew with the person he's seeing now. His cadence and tone make it seem likely that he's shaking his head on the other end of the line. He hasn't reached out to Mizuhara since the story broke -- "I figure he's busy dealing with death threats," he says dryly -- but he's spent the past few weeks thinking and rethinking the minute details of his time with him. He never in a million years expected to have to rethink any of this, but: Were there signs? Did he, and the other Americans, miss something?

"I can't give you a yes or a no or a maybe, and I don't want to try," Lively says. "I just know I never heard him talk about gambling, not once. I don't know if that means anything, though. That's the thing about addictions, right? You don't talk about them. You hide them."