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

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.