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Interpret This

April Fool’s Day has come and gone, but there are indeed some foolish things going on in La-La land as the Major League Baseball season gets underway.

As Major League Baseball began in Seoul, the sport that regards gambling as its biggest sin (aka Pete Rose and the Black Sox scandal) was rocked by the revelation that its highest-paid star, Shohei Ohtani ($700 million, 10-year deal with the Dodgers), and his longtime friend and interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, were the subjects of a $4-million sports gambling probe.

At the center of the scandal, reports indicated two wire transfers totaling $1 million came from Ohtani’s personal bank account to cover gambling debts run up by Mizuhura. The investigation into the matter is ongoing, and what may be true or untrue is yet to be determined.

Lots of questions remained unanswered. Ohtani’s representatives claim he had no knowledge of the money transfer and was himself the victim of a massive theft.

Mizuhura has been a friend, confidant, and interpreter to Ohtani since the two met in Japan in 2013. He became Ohtani’s de facto gatekeeper, with even his closest representatives going to Mizuhara to relay information to the ballplayer.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is — did Mizuhura have the ability to access Ohtani’s bank account without the player’s knowledge?

Curious about the relationship existing between a player and his interpreter, I asked Montoursville’s Tom O’Malley about his experiences playing in Japan. Following an 8-year MLB career, he enjoyed six successful seasons playing with the Hanshin Tigers and Yakult Swallows in the Japan Central League.

Following are O’Malley’s experiences with interpreters in Japan.

“Before I played my first season in Japan, I went over and got to meet the interpreter. I didn’t know anything about them, but they are your whole image. I was limited in the language, so whatever he told the media, I had no idea what he was saying. I didn’t know if he was saying good things or bad things or if he was interpreting exactly what I was telling him.

“The hard part is not only having someone who understands English but also has the knowledge and wisdom of baseball. My first interpreter did not know baseball. He was good at English. I would tell him, ‘I’m a triple away from hitting a cycle,’ and he was about ready to go buy a new bike for me. He had no idea of baseball terminology. Then, I was able to get the guy who signed me to play in Japan to be my interpreter. He was very good.

“Knowing the language makes a difference. That is why I tried to learn as much Japanese on my own as I could. To a baseball player in a foreign land, interpreters are very valuable. If you get a good one, it really helps in the adjustment phase. You don’t know much about the language and the culture. The interpreter tries to eliminate everything to help you play better. They help with the family, travel, and social functions. They want you just to focus on baseball.

“As you develop the relationship with the interpreter, they learn to know everything about you, including your business dealings. That is why I tried to learn more things on my own so that I could be more independent. At the beginning of my time in Japan, the interpreter was with me quite often. But the longer I was there I tried to go more on my own.

“When I played in Japan, the teams allowed a maximum of four foreign players. Our team had two hitters and two pitchers. The teams supplied interpreters, so the hitters shared an interpreter, as did the pitchers. When I was in Japan, they would be paid about $100,000 U.S. dollars. They sometimes could earn more, depending on how they did or how well their player did.

“It is a blessing when you have somebody that can help you out. The guy who signed me and became my second interpreter wanted me to do well. He came down from the front office knowing the importance of everything I was going through and was a tremendous help. I tip my hat to him and still stay in contact with him. He knew the value of what he was able to do. In turn, I became able to help other foreign players who came to Japan because I had gone through all that stuff. I became like ‘the manager of the foreign players.’

“During the game, the interpreter would be there if I needed him. We had pre-game hitters’ meetings, and we would dissect the pitchers and look at videos. But one thing that really helped me was in spring training, I had a couple of good games early, and they just let me go. Had I struggled, and I witnessed it from other foreign players who struggled in the beginning, they don’t leave them alone.”

When asked if, with so many non-English-speaking players in the Major Leagues today, interpreters are becoming increasingly prevalent, O’Malley responded.

“To a large degree, I think it depends on the player’s status as a prospect. Teams want to make a player’s transition much easier. Just like I experienced in Japan, teams want to make sure there are no distractions and put them in the best circumstances to succeed. There are so many adjustments in language and lifestyle for players coming to the United States to play. Teams have made big financial investments in these players, and they will continue to do what they can to help them be successful.”

So, who’s the fool in the Ohtani dilemma? That final interpretation is yet to be translated.