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Nightengale: MLB Powerless to Stop Gambling on Baseball, but Should Not Endorse It

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle

By Bob Nightengale |

The Supreme Court’s decision to legalize sports gambling nationwide will invigorate the human element in Major League Baseball, and perhaps drastically change the way the sport is viewed.

Pardon the baseball industry – from the umpires to the players association to the central office itself – for not savoring the change.

“It scares me to death,’’ veteran umpire Joe West, president of the umpire’s union, told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not worried about any of my guys doing anything (illegal), but I am worried about their security. People won’t have just a rooting interest in games, but now they’re gambling on them.

“So, if they lose their money, and they’re mad enough, anything’s liable to happen.

“You really worry about the criminal aspect, guys getting hurt, getting their legs broken, anything really.’’

Players are sharing similar sentiments, according to the MLBPA.

When bad beats happen, it won’t be a matter of fans screaming at race horses or dogs on a track and ripping up their tickets in frustration. That anger will now be turned towards players.

“It’s amazing what drunk fans that hate their lives will say to players even with no money on the game,’’ Cincinnati Reds second baseman Scooter Gennett said. “Can’t imagine anything worse….

“I hope fans are smart enough to realize that baseball is a crazy game and you never know what’s going to happen.’’

So long as a player’s Twitter mentions don’t spring to life after a game-turning error, right?

“The court’s decision is monumental,’’ Major League Players Association executive director Tony Clark said in a statement, “with far-reaching implications for baseball players and the game we love. From complex intellectual property questions to the most basic issues of player safety, the realities of widespread sports betting must be addressed urgently and thoughtfully to avoid putting our sport’s integrity at risk as states proceed with legalization.”

We’d be naive to think there still aren’t fans at ballparks who aren’t wagering on games now, but if Major League Baseball dares to embrace legalized gambling in the sport, what stops it from becoming an epidemic?

Why stop at gambling on the money lines of each game when you can put money on a player’s at-bat in the sixth inning, the number of relievers who come into a game, or simply whether the first pitch of each inning is a ball or strike?

“I don’t think anybody thinks it’s good for the game,’’ West says. “We’ve gone on for so many years without having this, so why now?’’

Money, of course.

“Sports betting happens,’’ Commissioner Rob Manfred told Yahoo Finance this spring. “Whether it’s legalized here or not, it’s happening out there. So I think the question for sports is really, ‘Are we better off in a world where we have a nice, strong, uniform, federal regulation of gambling that protects the integrity of sports, provides sports with the tools to ensure that there is integrity in the competition…or are we better off closing our eyes to that and letting it go on as illegal gambling?’

“And that’s a debatable point.’’

MLB realizes that jumping into bed with the gambling world can be profitable. From “integrity fees” to partnerships with casinos to, perhaps, their own gambling windows at the ballpark, assuring that action-loving fans stay in their seats until the ninth inning.

In a sport that is generating more than $10 billion annually, does baseball really want to go down this road?

Does the industry really want their players subjected to death threats when they may be playing on an injured ankle, but StatCast said they had an 80% chance of making that play?

Does it want integrity questioned on virtually every single pitch, knowing that the home-plate umpire can affect a game’s outcome more than any official in any sport?

Will any player, manager and umpire be above suspicion if they happen to have a poor performance?

Sure, maybe baseball’s annual $4 million average salary will be enough of a deterrent to prevent players from being tempted to go to the dark side, but money woes can make people do some crazy things. And with the most arcane bets subject to action, mining sources for information – be they part-time clubhouse attendants or other support staff – will have greater value.

MLB is powerless to stop the betting. The Supreme Court had its say, and not even Manfred’s “best interests of the game” clause can trump that.

Yet, MLB can still ask itself, is it worth the risk to tacitly endorse gambling merely for a cut of the action?

Maybe, it’s a question more suited for Pete Rose – you know, the guy who is permanently banned for gambling on baseball.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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