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Baseball and gambling have never mixed well

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MLB and its business partners are playing with fire with gambling and some of its spokespeople.

World Series - Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

During a live segment of the FOX network’s broadcast of the All-Star pre-game show on Tuesday night, FOX employee David Ortiz promoted a FOX betting app that he also participates in by taking cash out of a briefcase and throwing the cash into the crowd. If you happened to miss that not-so-impromptu promotion Tuesday night and the previous sentence confuses you, that’s certainly understandable. There were many aspects of the scene that raised several questions but perhaps answered some as well.

In order to fully frame how odd the current relationship between baseball and gambling is, right up to Ortiz’s current involvement, we have to take a quick step back to review how baseball got to this point. In full disclosure, by a “quick step back,” I mean over 150 years back in time.

Gambling originally wasn’t a residual side effect of baseball — it was a driver of the game’s popularity as soon as the game became what we now call “baseball” in the mid-19th century. Baseball’s initial gain in popularity came only after professional gamblers took interest in it. Gamblers realized there would be more interest, and therefore more money to be made, if fans could make side bets during games. Baseball was a tool used by gamblers, not the other way around.

Esteemed baseball historian John Thorn has said, “I don’t think you could have had the rise of baseball without gambling.” Box scores, statistics, player evaluations, and the reserve clause only came about due to the value they provided gamblers. “Game fixing dates back as early as 1865 — that is when we had our first scandal and three players were banned,” Thorn reminds those of us who believe scandal started with Chick Gandil. (Read Thorn’s book “Baseball in the Garden of Eden” for an in-depth exploration of this topic.)

If that didn’t make it clear that dealing with gamblers and gambling, in general, was a pretty big roll of the dice (pun intended), the Black Sox scandal certainly did. We all know the story. Books have been written and movies have been made about it, so there’s no need to rehash it here, but there is an important point and lesson that we should take from it that’s pertinent to this discussion. It’s certainly open for individual interpretation among reasonable baseball fans whether or not the scandal left the game for dead and only saved by Babe Ruth. What is unquestionable is that it left a Kennesaw Mountain-sized obstacle of poor public perception regarding fair play for the sport to overcome.

In a similar vein, there’s no need to digress with an extended discussion about Pete Rose and his many departures from what would be considered normative behavior. However, there is a key point from his case that is often overlooked that again, may be pertinent to today’s chat: A common refrain from Rose’s defenders is that he only bet on the Reds to win games. That is to say, he didn’t bet on the Reds to lose games which would suggest he would have to try to “throw” those games if he did — the games he bet on, he was really trying to win.

What that logic overlooks, is that if Rose bet on the Reds to win a particular game, then did not bet on the subsequent game, that is a de facto implication that he expected the team to lose, thereby giving gamblers an edge. Of all the justifiable criticisms of Rose you can make, he’s never come across as a dumb person — therefore, he was well aware of the extent to which he was helping his partners in literal crime, regardless of the specifics of his bets.

That brings us back to David Ortiz, one of baseball’s spokespeople for gambling. In 2005, Ortiz had a friend who was close enough to him that the friend was allowed in players’ only areas in the Boston clubhouse. After an investigation, evidence surfaced that Ortiz’s friend was betting on Red Sox games in a Boston barbershop that was a front for an illegal gambling parlor. (In one instance, the friend bet Boston would lose to Chicago and took the over — he won both bets.) Enough evidence in fact, that the friend would no longer be allowed in Red Sox facilities without proper background checks, ID, credentials, etc. MLB for their part, still allowed the individual on the field with Ortiz for the 2006 Home Run Derby, with then-EVP Rob Manfred’s knowledge and blessings.

When Ortiz was confronted by MLB security that his friend was still illegally betting thousands on Boston games, Ortiz pled ignorance. Yet coincidentally, shortly after the meeting ended, Red Sox security got a call from an informant that the gambling room of the barbershop had been shut down and cleared out. Then in 2007, Ortiz's friend was arrested on numerous charges — at Ortiz’s home. (Read “Baseball Cop” by Eddie Dominguez for the full account, and the receipts.)

MLB’s current relationship with, and promotion of, gambling is holding a gas can in one hand and a lit match in the other. Even devil’s advocate’s arguments don’t hold up to even a modicum of scrutiny.

If you believe players make far more money relative to average American incomes than they ever have, so they won’t be susceptible to game-fixing, I have news for you. First, most MLB players are not set for life from their baseball income, and perhaps more importantly as writer Joe Sheehan has pointed out, the umpires are the lowest-paid employees on the field and wield as much influence on game outcomes as anybody. Additionally, if you believe rich people would never circumvent rules to become even richer, then the help you need exceeds the time we have today.

If you’ve noted that MLB and Rob Manfred have been clear, especially with new collective bargaining talks coming up, that players are aware that the gambling is for fans only, and there will be strict enforcement of such, I have more news. There are very few absolute truths in baseball, but one is that MLB will look the other way when serious issues arise if it suits them. They’ve done it with PEDs, domestic abuse, literal human trafficking, “sticky stuff” and yes, gambling, for as long as baseball has been baseball. When someone shows you who they are, in this case, a century and a half ago, believe them the first time.

The number of fans who watch baseball without betting on it far exceeds the number of fans who watch baseball and bet on it. So why would MLB risk alienating the majority of its fans with even a hint of impropriety regarding the games and their outcomes? Of course, because MLB wants both fan bases and will try to accommodate both until the hypothetical gas can and lit match meet. Work fast, break things, worry about consequences later has long been a mantra of billion-dollar industries.

That said, it’s hard to envision a scenario where this does not end with some sort of scandal that damages the sport. The working historical relationship between baseball and gambling is not dissimilar to the working relationship George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin had — everyone seemed to know it wouldn’t end well except the parties involved. The slight difference was that there were rare occasions in which George and Billy got along — baseball and gambling have never worked well together.