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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.

The Giants are winning but they’re still gonna sell

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The state of baseball in general, the state of the National League in particular and the state of the San Francisco Giants as a competitor are conspiring to create what seems like at least a mildly absurd situation.

The Giants, a veteran-laden team that, as recently as this past offseason but definitely within the past couple of years, were at least talking about being on a win-now footing, just swept a four-game series, have won five straight games and have won 12 of 14 to pull themselves to within two and a half games of a playoff spot.

Yet, that’s all for temporary show, because they’re about to sell off. At least according to Jeff Passan at ESPN. Giants president Farhan Zaidi tried to push back on that in a radio interview yesterday, denying that the club has foreclosed the possibility of a postseason push, but I’m not really buying that and I don’t think most people are.

On one level it makes sense to ignore the recent surge and forge on with a rebuild. Sure, the Giants are winning but they’re not exactly good. They’re two and a half out of the Wild Card, but there are many teams ahead of them. There’s a lot of reason to think that they’re playing in good fortune right now and that that, rather than finding some extra gear of sustainable better play, is what’s to credit. Hot streaks can happen at any time but the trade deadline only comes once a year. When you have the best starter available in Madison Bumgarner and the best reliever available in Will Smith, you gotta make those deals. That’s what I’d probably do if I ran the Giants and I think that that’s, wisely, what Zaidi will do.

Still, it’s an odd look, less for the Giants specifically than for baseball as a whole. We may in an era of cheap front offices who don’t like to contend if it means spending money, but it’s unfair to paint the Giants with that brush. They’ve spent money and acquired talent and have done whatever they can to extend their 2010-2014 mini-dynasty a few more years and in doing so they’ve made a lot of fans happy. That team has pretty much reached the end and, even in an earlier, more competitive era, they’d not be properly criticized for starting in on a rebuild. Heck, they’d be excused if they had done it a year or two earlier, frankly.

But, because so many teams have punted on improving themselves, these aging Giants are at least superficially competitive. As such, when they do sell off in the coming days, it’ll look to some like they’re waving a white flag or something when they’re not really doing that. I mean, the Rockies and the Pirates, among other teams, should be much better than they are but didn’t seem all that interested in improving, thereby helping the Giants look better, right? It’s less a knock on the Giants for rebuilding when they’re within striking distance of the playoffs than it is on the rest of the league for allowing a team like the Giants to be within striking distance of a playoff spot.

But that’s where we are right now. An insanely competitive Wild Card race from teams that, on the whole, are rather unconcerned with being competitive. What a time to be a baseball fan.