Gambling For Life

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This story was originally published at Baseball Prospectus on June 6.

With last Tuesday’s lifetime banishment of injured San Diego Padres utilityman Tucupita Marcano for betting on games involving his then team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, as well as the unrelated one-year suspensions of four other players for betting on games in which they were not involved, baseball once again has a gambling problem. It has always had a gambling problem, but like malaria or shingles it’s an illness that becomes dormant for long periods of time, then awakens at moments of vulnerability. What has perhaps changed are the reasons for that vulnerability.

This year, Marcano was making $746,000, not a lot of money for a major league star (which he wasn’t), but is quite the robust salary in nearly every other context. When Marcano placed bets in contravention of baseball’s most inviolable rule, he presumably did so for reasons other than economic need. Need—and a little bit of reasonable resentment—was a motivator of one of baseball’s earliest gambling crises, this one arriving in just the second year of the National League’s existence. For two-thirds of the 60-game season, the Louisville Grays were dominant, going 27-13 through mid-August and leading the league by four games with 20 to play. As they reached that point of the season they had won 14 of their last 17 games. In short, they were established winners who seemed a lock to keep winning. That’s not what happened. Over the next couple of weeks they went 1-15-1. Simultaneously, four players on the team began dressing unusually well and carrying diamond-headed canes.

At roughly the same moment, Louisville team president Charles Chase received anonymous telegrams saying, “GAMBLERS ARE BETTING AGAINST YOUR TEAM,” or words to that effect. Odds that should have favored a dominating team like the Grays were consistently inverting to favor lesser opponents, a development analogous to the 2024 White Sox suddenly being rated huge favorites against the Yankees. At this point, as if a warning had been received, the team suddenly straightened up and started winning again, going 7-2 the rest of the way. The turnaround came too late to save the pennant—Boston shot past Louisville and won by seven games.

After the season, an investigation by Chase concluded that four Grays—outfielder George Hall, shortstop Bill Craver, infielder Al Nichols, and pitcher Jim Devlin—were throwing games in collusion with gamblers. There was evidence in the form of telegrams. There was also an incentive that Marcano and company almost certainly didn’t have—the Grays, like so many teams in baseball’s early days a hand-to-mouth business, hadn’t been paying their players regularly. The players’ actions may have been corrupt, but there is also a Jean Valjean aspect to their motives: they needed to feed their families, and if their employer wasn’t going to recompense them for their services, they needed to make money some other way.

The scheme backfired badly. All four players were permanently banned, losing their livelihoods, while the Grays franchise was so damaged that it folded. Devlin had been one of the best pitcher’s in the game, taking nearly every start for Louisville, completing almost all of them and, up until the point he had been compromised, recording ERAs below 2.00. Exile destroyed him, at least in the short term. Al Spalding recalled seeing Devlin appear in National League president William Hulbert’s office in rags. Dropping to his knees, Devlin begged for reinstatement. “Do it not for me, but do it for my wife and child.” They were, he said, starving. Hulbert gave him $50, then sent him away, saying that whereas he liked Devlin personally, “Damn you, you are dishonest and you sold out a game. I can’t trust you.”

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Just as there is hypocrisy in Hulbert damning Devlin for his conduct while ignoring the sins of Grays ownership and its failure to pay, Major League Baseball can never wholly claim the moral high ground by excoriating players for gambling while cozying up to legalized betting in every way short of putting touts on the stadium concourses. And yet, a selective integrity is not integrity at all no matter how farcical the attendant conditions. Either a league (or a government, religion, business, marriage) has integrity or it doesn’t; there is no in-between. Once faith is squandered, cynicism follows, then detachment. Corruption is, fast or slow, the death of an institution.

That explains Baseball’s actions, but not that of Marcano and the Small-Stakes Four. Surely none of them were acting from Devlin’s stated motives (which, given the diamond cane, you might or might not want to take at face value). That makes their gambling more disturbing, not less, because it was self-destructive, risky behavior without the possibility of a compensating reward. According to MLB’s press release, Marcano waged over $150,000 on baseball across nearly 400 bets, over half involving the major leagues. Pitchers Michael Kelly, Jay Groome, and Andrew Saalfrank and infielder Jose Rodriguez made from 10 to 32 bets each and gambled from $9.92 to $25.86 each time. This is tragic; in a career as fleeting as an athlete’s, to lose a year of eligibility over trifling sums, with the risk of never getting another chance, is devastating.

Kelly, a 31-year-old journeyman who didn’t make the majors until he was 29, had been on Oakland’s roster and had pitched well enough to be in no danger of losing his place, a first for him. Groome, Boston’s first-round pick in 2016, has endured numerous injuries and a chronic case of untamed control. Now 25 and long since dropped from top prospects lists, the lefty was, if not already on his last chance, perilously close to it. He toasted that chance over $453.74 in bets on which he took a net loss of $433.54.

There will be no knowing what these players were thinking until they speak to their suspensions. That said, it does seem fair to draw a line between Marcano’s more frequent and expensive betting and the smaller wagers placed by the Small Stakes Four. Their gambling may be indicative of nothing more than young men’s well-documented impulsivity and risk-taking. It may also have demonstrated a very specific sort of ignorance. Whereas, as MLB said in its release, “Each Spring Training, all Major League and Minor League players must attend in-person sessions that specify the requirements of Major League Rule 21 and MLB’s Sports Betting Policy as well as other best practices,” the players might not have realized the extent of surveillance to which bettors are subjected by the leagues and legal sportsbooks. As Rustin Dodd, Stephen J. Nesbitt, and Cody Stavenhagen wrote in The Athletic, “When a bettor—any bettor, for that matter—logs into a betting app, their location is immediately pinned by integrity analysts within a matter of feet… Social media is monitored closely, and companies use real-time data and proprietary algorithms to monitor betting trends and flag any unusually large line movement… If a case rises to a higher degree of suspicion, a monitoring service alerts both sportsbooks and the league.”

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This was how all five players were found out—the sportsbooks told on them. It was in their interests to do so. No five small-time bettors are worth the danger to the books’ relationship with Major League Baseball, which would almost certainly be curtailed if player-gambling became endemic and led to a major scandal. Their association with baseball isn’t about getting access to player money, it’s about getting access to yours.

That accounts for why MLB and its gambling partners acted as they did. It still leaves us wondering about why a subset of players would act against their own self-interest by contravening baseball’s most well-known rule. While we can’t know for certain, it’s reasonable to ask what gambling is about for the gambler when it’s not about money. All of these players have faced career interruptions due to injuries, the suspension of minor league play in 2020 due to COVID-19, or both. Groome’s betting took place in 2020-2021, while Kelly’s was contained to 2021. Rodriguez’s occurred in 2021-2022, as did Saalfrank’s. Marcano’s bets seem to have been placed after he was idled by a knee injury in July, 2023. In all cases, the timing seems significant.

There has been an ongoing debate outside of baseball about the effects of smartphone-enabled online living on young men (and everyone else as well). Whereas humans have used pornography since they learned to draw, and video games, while a recent development in historical terms, have been with us for over half a century, smartphones have changed the nature of our interaction with both. Both (and, before video games, pinball machines) have provoked past panics about their “influence,” but what is different about this most recent iteration is that our ever-present phones allow for instant access and complete immersion. This potentially leads, the reasoning goes, to a world of pseudo-accomplishment: Self-pleasure via pornography may not be as satisfying as actual sex, but it’s close enough that one might forgo the awkward, time-consuming labor of interacting with others successfully enough to achieve physical intimacy. Similarly, whereas the points, medals, and victories of video gaming do not exist outside of the games, they feel real enough that one’s desire for achievement in the real world might be sated. In this way relationships that might have happened, works that might have been created, and money that might have been earned are sacrificed as we withdraw into seductive, illusory worlds.

It seems reasonable to add gambling, with its recent, app-based ubiquity, to the list of means by which one might substitute the feeling of action for the real thing. At the levels Marcano and the Small-Stakes Four were betting, their gambling was not about breaking the casino and walking away loaded, which would be a more tangible achievement. They were seemingly just doing it to do it, however foolhardy it was given baseball’s rules. Moreover, they were primarily doing so during a period immediately after they had been deprived of the positive stimulus of on-field achievement. Perhaps they felt the loss and substituted another stimulant in its place. Marcano’s gambling, even at an average of approximately $400 per bet (MLB said he bet “more than” $150,000 over 387 bets), while seemingly problematic (even for someone making as much money as he was, six figures is a lot to wager) was unlikely to change his financial outlook. Losing his job would be. The rewards were unequal to the risks.

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While the players are as responsible for their actions as Jim Devlin was nearly 150 years ago, we can’t wholly discount Major League Baseball’s embrace of legalized betting—all of Marcano’s bets were placed via a legal sportsbook according to MLB—in influencing these wayward players to think that the age-old prohibition on gambling was now more of a knowing wink. What you do is far more vivid an example than what you say, and baseball is in bed with the sportsbooks and the casinos.

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And yet, it’s not just Major League Baseball that is to blame. As with so many of its policies over the centuries, it’s following the societal tide, not leading it. In 2018, the United States Supreme Court voided the law that limited sports betting to Nevada. Now it’s everywhere, and sports media is saturated with the come-ons, all designed to hook the vulnerable. As the Washington Post wrote in 2022, these disembodied casinos endure high customer acquisition costs, “based on projections indicating that sportsbooks will clear several thousand dollars over the lifetime of their average customer.” Of course, they offer new players generous deposit matches—they feel reasonably certain that once they’ve reeled you in, they’re going to get the money back, plus a lot more. No casino, from huge edifices like Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas to the most bareboned app, was built with the intention of losing money. The house always wins.

Some of us are capable of accepting that reality and gambling, as the ads have it, responsibly. Others are more vulnerable to the come-ons. They don’t sense the danger, they just see the lure. Drawn in, they destroy themselves, not realizing, whether they sit in the actual building and enjoy the luxurious appurtenances of the casino or the celebrities in the ads, that they are paying for those luxuries—they chipped in for every chandelier and carpet—and they are paying for those celebrity appearances, Jamie Foxx, Ben Affleck, et al.

Even though the players walked all over the most bright-line rule in the book, perhaps it should have been taken as a given that a few of the league’s thousands of players succumbed to a siren song played at such high volume, these suspensions simply the price of doing business (with sportsbooks) in this new era. The league’s involvement might not have made any sort of difference: What we’re all hearing, all the time, is that gambling is safe, gambling is fun, gambling is profitable, gambling is good. It’s not surprising that even five men who should have known more about deceptive offerings than any of us were among those to fall for their pitch.

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