This Is How It Has to Work

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday morning, Major League Baseball announced the suspension of five players for violating Rule 21, the prohibition on betting on baseball. Minor leaguers Jay Groome of the Padres, José Rodríguez of the Phillies, Michael Kelly of the Athletics, and Andrew Saalfrank of the Diamondbacks were all suspended for one season.

But the headline figure in the announcement is Padres utilityman Tucupita Marcano, who has been declared permanently ineligible after betting some $150,000 on baseball games — a mix of MLB and international contests — through legal sportsbooks. Marcano placed 25 bets on games involving the Pirates last summer while he was on Pittsburgh’s injured list and receiving treatment at PNC Park. While all five players placed bets on their parent clubs, the key distinction is that Marcano did so while assigned to the major league team. For that, he became the first player to receive a lifetime sanction for this offense since Pete Rose 35 years ago.

This looks like just another domino in a series of gambling scandals to hit baseball in the past 13 months: First the Alabama baseball scandal, which involved a suspicious wager placed at the sportsbook at Great American Ball Park. Then, most notoriously, Shohei Ohtani’s right-hand man, Ippei Mizuhara, washed up in a federal law enforcement dragnet after stealing millions of dollars from Ohtani to finance wagers with illegal bookie Matthew Bowyer. More recently, the Bowyer investigation has ensnared longtime big league infielder David Fletcher, Ohtani’s former teammate. And because when it rains it pours, Mizuhara pleaded guilty to fraud charges in a hearing just hours after MLB officially banned Marcano. MLB followed up shortly thereafter by officially closing the Ohtani affair.

Discussion of the Bowyer case in particular has been long on innuendo and short on details; federal investigations often are, and arguably should be. The goal of such an enterprise is to reach conclusions that could deprive people of liberty and property; agents ought to follow the evidence wherever it goes, no matter how long it takes and what the rumor mill churns up in the investigators’ wake.

That’s left MLB, and especially Ohtani, in an awkward position. Not only was the game’s biggest star tainted by association — even after he was cleared of wrongdoing — MLB just narrowly avoided a situation in which Ohtani could plausibly have been blackmailed into throwing games.

These cases could hardly have been more different. The betting at issue in today’s suspensions came through legal sportsbooks, including MLB’s commercial partners, who have a regulatory duty to disclose suspicious betting patterns — this is how Alabama coach Brad Bohannon and his Coen Brothers goon of a co-conspirator got caught — and to monitor wagering by MLB players and staff.

We know exactly how much Marcano and the others bet, and when, and on which contests. The press release detailing these five suspensions ran four pages and included summaries of each player’s betting behaviors.

This produced some darkly funny details, such as the fact that Groome won only two of the MLB bets he placed and lost more than 95% of the money he wagered. Marcano won only 4.3% of his MLB-related bets, while Saalfrank lost $1.80 on a single college baseball bet among the few hundred dollars he wagered on MLB action.

It almost feels cruel to kick a man while he’s down like that, as if the league said, “Hey, not only are we imperiling or ending your career, we’re going to broadcast to the world that you spent your free time losing Uncut Gems-level multi-leg parlays on your phone!”

But that level of detail is necessary in order for anyone to believe the last line of all five case summaries. The wording is the same in every instance, apart from the player’s name: “There is no evidence to suggest — and [PLAYER] denies — that any outcomes in the baseball games on which he placed bets were compromised, influenced, or manipulated in any way.”

In general, I keep a default position of skepticism when it comes to Major League Baseball as a corporate entity. That includes the league’s internal investigations, which routinely disgraced the league, its players, and the sport during the peak of PED hysteria 10 to 15 years ago. It also encompasses its attempt to balance its interest in legal gambling with a zero-tolerance policy for betting on baseball or making bets with illegal bookies.

So brace yourselves, I’m about to give MLB some unreserved praise.

In my writeup of the Ohtani scandal, I made the following conclusion: “Is it possible for this legal and highly profitable gambling center to exist in the world of professional baseball alongside its shadowy and illicit cousin? Perhaps. But to embrace one while abjuring the other requires specificity and discipline bordering on cognitive dissonance.”

Specificity and discipline.

When MLB engages in commercial partnerships with casinos and sportsbooks on one hand and bans ballplayers from gambling with the other, the juxtaposition is certainly awkward. From a moral perspective, it’s hard not to find the puritanical response to player gambling hypocritical. But MLB is not and has never been a moral actor, and while there are considerable practical hurdles to stamping out illegal gambling within the sport, the legal position of the league is as clear as it’s been for 100 years.

There are two big red-letter no-nos if you work for MLB or a team: You can’t bet on baseball, and you can’t wager with unlicensed bookmakers. Betting on other sports through legal means is in bounds. Whether this position is morally consistent or socially healthy is entirely beside the point. These are the rules, and if players (or coaches or trainers or whoever) break them, the entire credibility of the sport crumbles rapidly.

By banning players for betting on baseball, MLB is not contradicting its own position on gambling — it’s merely enforcing a boundary that’s necessary to protect the welfare of the sport and its players. I don’t remember anyone having trouble holding both of these ideas in their heads at the same time when beer companies sponsored NASCAR teams. We could all see the difference between enjoying a can of Miller Lite in the grandstands and chugging a six-pack before hopping in the car to do 200 mph at Talladega. Gambling is no different.

Commissioner Rob Manfred made this point in his statement that accompanied the suspension announcement: “We have been clear that the privilege of playing in baseball comes with a responsibility to refrain from engaging in certain types of behavior that are legal for other people.”

I also think it’s worth reiterating just how clear the league has been. The announcement concludes with a summary of the anti-gambling education rules each team undergoes every season: In-person classes, literature in English and Spanish. I’ve been in dozens of major league clubhouses and every single one has had an anti-gambling notice posted on its bulletin board. If you’re a player who doesn’t know Rule 21, or thinks it’s more of a guideline than a line in the sand, you’re not paying attention.

Marcano, having already lost a non-trivial portion of his major league earnings gambling, is completely done with affiliated baseball at age 24. Four minor leaguers will lose a year of their careers for betting relatively trivial sums — none of the four bet more than $750, and Kelly wagered only $99.32. That’s a shame, and a life-altering tragedy for all five players, but I have only limited sympathy for their plight. There’s indisputable evidence these players broke the Prime Directive, and MLB would be negligent not to throw the book at them.

The only way to send a clearer message would be to take a bank of lockers in every clubhouse and stencil “PLEASE DON’T BET ON BASEBALL, DUDE” on the wall in foot-high red letters, then repeat the message underneath in Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Papiamento. Bet on your own team as a major leaguer? Banned for life. Bet on baseball in general? Banned for a season. Even if you didn’t throw games. Even if you didn’t use insider information. Even if you lost your bet, or only wagered a few bucks. It doesn’t matter. Back in the 18th Century, colonial authorities would gibbet pirates as a warning; by banning Marcano for life, Manfred has done the same. It’s harsh, maybe even draconian. But if legal gambling and baseball are going to exist, it had to be done.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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markakis21member
16 days ago

I’ve been pretty critical of your work in the past, but this is absolutely spot on, and well-written. This is how it has to work, or else it won’t work. It’s their own fault for doing these things.

Smiling Politelymember
16 days ago
Reply to  markakis21

I don’t disagree, but is there a groundswell of support for *allowing* players to bet? Is there an argument posted somewhere contrary to this position that elicited such strong prose? Even most of Rose’s supporters are dead or lack the credibility themselves to advocate for anyone.

So I ask in earnest, and also with a raised eyebrow, as I don’t think you can let MLB off the hook as easily as Baumann has here when they’re encouraging everyone who *isn’t* a player to bet. Big Tobacco was complicit in the death of its customers (I’m old enough to remember candy cigarettes); aren’t MLB and its gambling partners complicit in the consequences of its product, as well?

tomerafan
16 days ago

Tobacco harms every user. Gambling does not. Both are addictive, but only one is per se toxic.

Smiling Politelymember
16 days ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Tobacco harms people who aren’t users (which was one of the primary motivators for banning it indoor facilities); it doesn’t take many moves to demonstrate how gambling does the same (sure, Ohtani can afford to be robbed by his translator…).

I’m not arguing for Congress to do something (cmon, now), but I don’t think you can profit from gambling and dissuade people from doing it at the same time with any kind of logical or ethical credibility

airforce21one
15 days ago
Reply to  tomerafan

Gambling harms gamblers’ families, and the population in general, does it not?

Billsaints
15 days ago

I don’t think Baumann is letting MLB off for their partnership with gambling, he’s only commentating on rule 21.

Sleepy
16 days ago
Reply to  markakis21

It’s their own interpreter’s fault for doing these things.

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