The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why I can’t wrap my head around baseball’s embrace of sports betting

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media in Arlington, Texas, Nov. 21. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
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Micheline Maynard is a journalist and author. Her books include “The End of Detroit: How the Big Three Lost Their Grip on the American Car Market.”

The Detroit Tigers, with a 10-24 record entering Monday, haven’t been much fun to watch so far this season. Even the ads during their telecasts can be unsettling.

In January, online betting became legal in Michigan, and ever since, commercials for the big gambling brands have been plentiful on local airwaves. I knew things had changed during the Tigers’ season opener on April 1. I counted at least 10 gaming ads during the three-hour telecast, including for FanDuel Sportsbook, PokerStars, DraftKings, BetMGM and TwinSpires.

The channel showing the game had its own gambling twist. The day before the season started, Sinclair Broadcasting changed the name of its regional sports networks; Fox Sports Detroit became Bally Sports Detroit. A cursive red Bally insignia was constantly displayed onscreen.

One of the betting commercials especially stood out. Midway through the game, a green baseball diamond popped on the screen, bearing the DraftKings logo and the words, “Authorized Gaming Operator.” It was accompanied by a familiar sight: Major League Baseball’s red, white and blue logo.

“Go big on baseball this season,” DraftKings spokeswoman Jessie Coffield urged. “Bet $1 on your team. Win $100 if they get a hit. One hit. One hundred dollars.”

Bet on your team, I thought, as the Tigers returned to the field. But — isn’t that what earned Pete Rose a lifetime ban from baseball in the 1980s? And weren’t eight members of the Chicago White Sox banished for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series at the behest of bribe-dangling gamblers?

Though Rose proclaimed his innocence for years, he finally admitted in 2004 that he gambled on games as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, including those involving his own team. But he insisted that he only bet on the Reds to win.

The Black Sox, as they were nicknamed, were accused of having colluded with gambling kingpin Arnold Rothstein. The players were found not guilty in court, but were kicked out of baseball anyway.

In 1927, Major League Baseball enacted Rule 21(d), which says that any player, umpire, club official or employee who bets on any baseball game unrelated to their performance “shall be declared ineligible for one year.” If they bet on a game in which they are involved, they are “declared permanently ineligible.”

Even though baseball spent decades seeming to abhor the very idea that anyone would bet on games, current MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been inching toward an association between baseball and betting for years.

In 2015, Manfred said of sports betting that it was “important for there to be a conversation between me and the owners about what our institutional position will be.” More recently, he called sports betting “a massive opportunity for fan engagement.”

But after a century of baseball taking such a hard line against gambling, this waltz between Major League Baseball and online gaming is jarring. It’s legal, but weird. I know there’s no crying in baseball, but I worry about the gambling temptation for players, not to mention for fans who wrestle with gambling addiction. And I worry that unhappy gamblers at the ballpark might berate players who cost them money.

“It does feel a little hypocritical to watch them cozy up to legalized sports betting, now that they have found more sophisticated and more convenient ways to profit,” says Jacob Pomrenke, an expert on the Black Sox scandal and the director of editorial content at the Society for American Baseball Research.

“A careless attitude about the game's integrity can snowball very quickly into something worse,” he says.

I’ve never been tempted to bet on baseball myself, but after being bombarded with so many commercials for sports betting, I was curious about how the apps work.

As a lifelong horse racing fan, I’ve stood in line to place bets at Churchill Downs and sent money down with friends to place bets for me on the Kentucky Derby. The app I tested was far easier. I entered some personal information, set up a $10 deposit via my bank account, and picked out a horse.

I selected a $2 bet to win, and clicked. It was as easy as sending a text, and I could see why MLB wants into a legalized online gambling market estimated at $66.7 billion last year.

But every click on a gambling app is a reminder that a strange new chapter in baseball history is opening — and that Major League Baseball has no interest in revisiting the past.

Pete Rose has twice petitioned MLB in recent years for reinstatement and consideration by Hall of Fame voters, unsuccessfully. And Manfred has shown no signs of wanting to reconsider the Black Sox players’ status. In a 2015 letter responding to one player’s descendants, Manfred said he stood by former commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti’s contention that the scandal is “now best given to historical analysis and debate as opposed to a present-day review with an eye to reinstatement.”

In other words, that was then, and apps are now.

Oh, by the way, I won $26.20 on Medina Spirit. I’ve already collected my winnings, no matter what happens.

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