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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 11: Sports Gambling Legalized

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

On May 14, the United States Supreme Court struck down a law that outlawed sports gambling in nearly every state. The ruling will result in legalized gambling all over the United States. And in a very strange new world for Major League Baseball.

The now dead law was known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA). Only Nevada — which had legal sports gambling before its passage and was grandfathered in — was exempt. The State of New Jersey wanted to legalize sports gambling too and challenged PASPA as unconstitutional, bringing suit in 2009. The lawsuit claimed, among other things, that PASPA unconstitutionally discriminated among the states. From the time the suit was filed my own legal judgment made me think the plaintiffs would win and, in the end they did. PASPA always seemed like governmental overreach into an area that states have traditionally had ultimate power. I’m not personally a fan of the current Supreme Court, but they got it right.

States and sports leagues were gearing up for legalized gambling long before the Court’s decision last May. Several states began drafting sports gambling laws that could be ready by the time the ruling came. The leagues — including Major League Baseball — at first took the side of the federal government in fighting the lawsuit. Later, however, when it became likely that the states challenging the law would win, they switched sides and did whatever they could to have a role in — and to get a cut of — the new action. Throughout 2018 Major League Baseball pressured state legislatures to give them a percentage of sports gambling proceeds, premised on shaky “intellectual property rights” and vague references to a need to protect the sport’s “integrity.” As I discussed at length earlier this year — see herehere and here— it was really just a shakedown.

Or, rather, an attempted shakedown. No states have thus far bit, leaving Major League Baseball on the outside looking in when it comes to being included in gambling regulatory schemes. That led to a change in tactics for Rob Manfred and the league. If they couldn’t seek rents from governments’ gambling proceeds, they’d take their cut from the source by partnering up with casinos.

Specifically, MGM Resorts which, in late November, became the first ever “Official Gaming Partner of Major League Baseball.”

What that practically means is that MGM Resorts will advertise its many casinos and resorts on MLB Network, MLB.com, the MLB At Bat app and the like. MGM, in turn, will be given access to MLB’s official statistics for its online and casino-based sports books. This includes “enhanced statistics” given to MGM on an exclusive basis. In short: MGM’s oddsmakers, in exchange for giving a bunch of money to Major League Baseball, will get the sort of information that will, presumably, help them set better and more action-inducing odds.

Beyond the MGM deal, look for gambling to become far more front-and-center than it ever has been in the world of baseball. For example, there will soon be a betting room at Nationals Park, it seems. Expect more of that sort of thing as more and more states pass laws regarding how, when and where people can bet on sports.

Quite a change for Major League Baseball which — from the Black Sox scandal through the imposition of Rule 21 and on through the banishment of Pete Rose — has, historically, been about as anti-gambling as a business can be. In space of a few years the game has gone from harshly punishing any player or team or league employee from merely associating with casinos to partnering up with one.

Things change. Well, most things.

Anger, apologies, incompetence and the chaos surrounding the Houston Astros

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It’s hard to keep track of the silliness and drama surrounding the Astros these days, but since it’s virtually the only story of note so far this spring training, let us get ourselves up to speed, shall we?

In case you missed it over the weekend, round 27 of “are the Astros’ apologies sincere?” took place. There was nothing terribly new in all of this. A lot of people have become armchair public relations experts as it relates to the Astros, but my personal view is that the Astros’ public statements are not lacking because they’re tone deaf or because they have bad P.R. It’s simply because they’re not sorry.

It’s pretty simple, really. Athletes are lauded and mythologized for being willing to do anything to win. A century and a half of pro sports has shown us, time and again, that that anything often includes cheating. And that with few exceptions, the reward is worth the risk. It’s also worth the fallout in the instances in which they are caught. The Astros won a title. They got glory and fame and in some cases money and no one can make them give any of that back (and Rob Manfred reiterated last night that he won’t do that). There is really nothing that can be done. And, on some level, the Astros know this. To the extent they feel bad it’s because they got caught and because they are being scrutinized now. It is not because they feel genuine sorrow that, dang it, they simply cannot properly express.

These kinds of dilemmas usually cause people to search for solutions. If we did THIS or if we do THAT the problem will be addressed. Sorry, nope. This is just a thing that has happened. It may be put in the past for the most part, but it won’t be atoned for in a meaningful way. This is one of those basic things that anyone who is into high level sports just has to make peace with somehow. Or, even, if they can’t, it’s something they need to stop assuming is a stain on some pure thing. Baseball is not pure, nor are the men who play it. A lot of us know that, but we also need to accept the flip side of it: forgiveness or absolution is in no way guaranteed and the Houston Astros and their fans are gonna have to get cool with that. “What do you want from them? They can’t win?!” is a refrain you’re hearing more and more of. Well, yeah, maybe they can’t.

The fans are a whole other thing.

I realize that the social media sentiment one sees from a fan base is not necessarily representative of a fan base, but it’s worth noting that a LOT of that sentiment has Astros fans, and some radio personality types, vacillating between “see, they apologized!” and “they have no reason to apologize because everyone else was cheating and no one else is talking about that, are they?!”

This last bit is what’s most fascinating to me, because it involves two levels of cognitive dissonance on the part of those who hold the opinion.

First off, I’m struck by the notion that for seven years the Astros and their fans have insisted that the Astros do everything better, earlier, faster, and more efficiently than the rest of the league. Then, the moment they get busted for something that their better and faster front office innovated — Codebreaker — they insist that they were merely doing what everyone else was doing across the league. I guess the Astros are only at the cutting edge of exploiting competitive inefficiencies in non-rule-breaking ways. Pretty convenient!

Second off, a lot of people are telling me that the Astros are being singled out, and that no one is reporting on all of the other teams who were doing it. While I’ve slammed Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball for apparently ignoring allegations that several other teams have cheated in this manner, I have to take issue with the idea out there that “no one is reporting on this.”

Folks, I know a lot of reporters, and I can assure you that almost every one of them with sources who are former players for the teams they cover have reached out to said sources to try to get a scoop like the one Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic got on the Astros.  The media has every incentive in the world to break the story of the A’s or the Rangers or the Braves or the Cubs or whoever doing it and they have no incentive to bury it. That no one has broke it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it does not mean that there is a massive conspiracy to single out the Astros.

Finally, even if the Astros are being singled out, it does not absolve them. I would hope that’s not a difficult concept to grok — “I may have been copying Billy’s test but Billy was copying from Suzy” hasn’t washed as an excuse, basically ever — but you’d be amazed at how many Astros fans I’ve encountered who are arguing, basically that. Down with whataboutism, folks. It’s simply crap logic.

Now on to Rob Manfred.

Last Wednesday I emptied both barrels on Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball for what is, quite obviously, their massive mishandling of the sign-stealing scandal. In that column I wrote that Manfred was “obligated, for the sake of his legitimacy as Commissioner of Baseball and for the sake of the game itself, to answer publicly for why he let it get to this state in the first place.”

Manfred tried to do that yesterday afternoon and it went miserably. You can read Bill’s whole writeup of it here, but the most telling part is when he made a snide and dismissive remark about Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond’s story which revealed (a) how much more sophisticated and front office-led the sign-stealing was; and (b) how Manfred apparently buried all of that in his January report on the matter. Manfred:

“You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part.”

How immature. How peevish. In this Manfred comes off like a whining child. Like someone so out of his depth in the job of commissioner that the echo sounder can’t gauge it.

I mentioned before that there are a lot of reporters who would love to break another team’s sign-stealing, and that’s true, but on the flip side there are very, very few reporters who are super critical of the league or Manfred from an editorial perspective. The reason for this is simple: a substantial part of the baseball press corps is employed by MLB itself or work for MLB rights holders like ESPN, RSNs or radio outlets which broadcast games. That Manfred can’t handle even the very small amount of heat he gets from the press — that a simple factual support inspires an ad hominem attack on the reporter who, via basic reporting, revealed Manfred’s own incompetence — is simply sad.

Anyway, it’s a whole new week now. Maybe now people will begin to accept that not all apologies are required to be accepted. Maybe they’ll begin to accept that not all bad behavior has a defense. Maybe they’ll begin to accept that Major League Baseball cares far less about getting to the bottom of issues that reflect poorly on the league than it does about burying said issues in the bottom of a quarry someplace. Maybe they’ll move on to baseball. To the parts about it that aren’t ridiculous and pathetic.

OK, maybe they won’t.