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Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 19: Baseball embraces gambling

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

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 over the past ten years.

Next up: number 19 — Baseball Embraces Gambling 

Baseball’s original sin was segregation and racism. Its secondary sin was gambling. Indeed, after segregation, there is likely no external force that has influenced baseball’s history as greatly as gambling has. The Black Sox scandal — which was only one of many, many deadball-era gambling scandals — is why we have a Commissioner and why Shoeless Joe Jackson isn’t in the Hall of Fame. It’s why Pete Rose has been persona non grata in baseball circles for 30 years. It’s why legends Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were banned from the game for a time in the early 80s. Baseball has, at various times, weathered drug and cheating scandals — and it made it through two World Wars — but it has always feared and punished gambling more than any other offense.

Until 2018, anyway.

On May 14 of that year the United States Supreme Court struck down a law that outlawed sports gambling in nearly every state. The ruling began the process of legalized sports gambling spreading all over the United States. It also resulted 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 that one right.

States and sports leagues were gearing up for legalized gambling long before the Court’s decision. 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 at the time — see herehere and here— it was really just a shakedown. Or, rather, an attempted shakedown. No states bit, leaving Major League Baseball on the outside looking in when it came 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 of 2018, became the first ever “Official Gaming Partner of Major League Baseball.” It’s probably no coincidence that the 2018 Winter Meetings took place at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas right after that.

What that practically meant was that MGM Resorts began to advertise its many casinos and resorts on MLB Network, MLB.com, the MLB At Bat app and the like. MGM, in turn, was given access to MLB’s official statistics for its online and casino-based sports books. That included “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, now gets the sort of information that will, presumably, help them set better and more action-inducing odds.

Beyond the MGM deal, gambling will soon become far more front-and-center than it ever has been in the world of baseball. There will soon be a betting room at Nationals Park, it seems. While sports gambling has not yet been legalized in California, the current renovations of Dodger Stadium feature architecture which suggests that fans will one day be able to place wagers just beyond the outfield wall. The big new player in baseball broadcasting — Sinclair, which recently purchased the 21 regional sports channels previously owned by Fox — announced that it would greatly ratchet up gambling-specific content on its baseball broadcasts. Expect more of that sort of thing as more and more states pass laws regarding how, when and where people can bet on sports.

Also expect some hiccups along the way.

Even if betting on baseball is legalized, the rules which prohibit from players, coaches, and umpires from betting on baseball will not be, due to concerns about the competitive integrity of the game. With far more opportunities to bet on sports, however, there will be far more opportunities for those rules to be broken. For its part, Minor League Baseball is greatly concerned that the combination of the low wages minor leaguers are paid and the proliferation of sports gambling make it far more likely that someone might do something shady to throw games or otherwise influence outcomes. Or, if it is found that a player is making bets, that he could be easily blackmailed.

Whatever comes of this, good, bad, or neutral, this is quite a change for baseball. In space of just 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 and getting in on the action itself.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Tim Tebow homers in spring training game

Tim Tebow
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Mets minor league outfielder Tim Tebow hit a two-run home run during Tuesday afternoon’s Grapefruit League game against the Tigers. It’s his first spring training home run since beginning his professional baseball career in late 2016.

Tebow, 32, is, of course, a former college football legend. He had a much-anticipated NFL career that ended up brief and disappointing, prompting a change of vocation. Tebow was passable with Double-A Binghamton in 2018, but the Mets promoted him to Triple-A for the 2019 season anyway. That was a mistake. Through 264 plate appearances, Tebow hit .163/.240/.255, ranking as the worst hitter in the minor leagues.

Tebow also walked along with the homer in three plate appearances on Tuesday. While it’s a solid early showing, Tebow participating with the other big leaguers or soon-to-be big leaguers in spring training is something of a sideshow. If he were a regular ballplayer working his way up the ranks, he likely would have been cut after last season. He certainly wouldn’t have been given an invitation to big league camp the next year.

There are aspects of the Tebow situation to respect: that he’s athletic and dedicated enough to attempt a professional career in another sport, for example. He moves tickets and merchandise. But one can’t help but wonder about the roster spot he’s holding that would otherwise go to a more deserving player.