Dodgers players surprised by Shohei Ohtani's composure: 'Betrayal is hard'

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Kiké Hernández stood in the corner of a jam-packed Dodger Stadium interview room Monday and watched as Shohei Ohtani forcefully denied speculation that he bet on sports or knew that his former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, had allegedly stolen $4.5 million from him to pay off debts owed to an illegal Orange County bookmaker.

During the 12-minute press conference, Ohtani said he had no knowledge of Mizuhara’s gambling problem until last week, that he never agreed to pay off Mizuhara’s debt or make payments to the bookmaker, and that Mizuhara, who was fired by the Dodgers last week, “has been stealing money from my account and has told lies.”

When he was done, Ohtani, speaking through interim interpreter Will Ireton, thanked the crowd of about 75 media members, said he was “glad we [had] this opportunity to talk,” and that he is “looking forward to focusing on the season.”

Then Ohtani got back to work ahead of an exhibition game against the Angels, his former club. He played catch before the game for the first time since last September, the start of a throwing progression in the two-way star’s rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery.

“He’s handling this way better than I would,” said Hernández, the Dodgers’ utility player. “Betrayal is hard. And when you show up to work and you don’t show any signs of … we’re human and [stuff] affects us in many different ways. And he’s doing a great job of not letting it [distract] him from what he needs to do on the field and his work.”

Hernández and reliever Joe Kelly were the only players in attendance for the press conference, which took place while most of the team went through pregame workouts. Club president Stan Kasten, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, general manager Brandon Gomes and manager Dave Roberts were also there.

“For him to be able to collect his thoughts and speak honestly and openly and be very vulnerable was really huge,” Roberts said of Ohtani. “I heard everything I needed to hear, and I know the players feel the same way. … I got a lot of questions answered as far as what he knew, what he didn’t know, and I’m looking forward to just moving forward and letting the authorities take care of this.”

Monday marked the first time that Ohtani, the global superstar who signed a 10-year, $700-million deal with the Dodgers in December, addressed the scandal publicly.

The matter is under investigation by Major League Baseball and the Internal Revenue Service, and Mathew Bowyer, the alleged bookmaker, is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.

Ohtani reiterated several times that he is a victim, not a willing participant, in the scandal, and if his new teammates needed any convincing, they received it during the press conference.

“We’re all behind the guy,” Dodgers third baseman Max Muncy said. “For me, where I come from, you’re innocent until proven guilty. So the guy has told us face to face what he believes is the truth. That’s what I’m going off of, and I believe him 100% I have his back on that.”

As shocking as it was for the Dodgers to wake up to news of the scandal last Wednesday in South Korea, where they were playing a season-opening two-game series against the San Diego Padres, they seemed to have found their equilibrium during the 11 ½-hour flight home from Seoul and the next four days in Los Angeles.

In fact, they have moved from their initial insistence that the scandal won’t be a distraction — ”It’s been behind us since we left Korea,” Hernández said — to a belief that it might have a galvanizing effect as the club circles the wagons around its new star.

“It’s a hard thing to move on from, especially for him, and you definitely feel for the guy, but he’s starting to see how we act as a group in this clubhouse and to know that we all have each other’s backs and we’re going to move forward through this,” Muncy said.

“You obviously don’t hope for things like this to happen, and it’s yet to be seen how we come out of this. But I think it’s good for him to see exactly what kind of group we have here, and hopefully that will help him through this.”

The Dodgers, with their $300-million payroll and World-Series-or-bust expectations, resume the regular season with Thursday’s home opener against the St. Louis Cardinals, and they — and especially Ohtani — seem determined not to let the scandal derail them.

“The guy has been amazing in the clubhouse — he’s being professional, being quiet about it and taking care of his stuff,” infielder Miguel Rojas said. “I can’t talk about what he’s feeling, but I can talk about being a teammate of his, and to see him go through that, it’s a lot. I feel for the guy. All you can do is be here for him and support him.”

Kelly, the Dodgers reliever, came away from the press conference with an even higher opinion of Ohtani, the two-time American League most valuable player who is already considered the best all-around player in the game.

“It’s kind of sad to see, it’s a tough spot, but he’s been pretty strong,” Kelly said. “He’s handled it like a pro, better than I probably would. It’s cool to see him deal with it and still play and be able to focus on what he gets paid for.”

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