Player suspensions are another example of MLB’s delicate dance with gambling


Players betting on baseball hardly is a surprise when virtually every major sports league and sports media company is bombarding the general public with advertisements urging them to gamble. The leagues are willing to make the tradeoff for the payoff, particularly if they only need to punish a few relatively anonymous players along the way.

The real danger is if actual stars get sucked in, and/or if players who bet influence the outcome of games. Major League Baseball, in issuing a lifetime ban to Tucupita Marcano and one-year suspensions to four others on Tuesday, took pains in detailing each penalty to say, “There is no evidence to suggest – and (the player) denies – that any outcomes in the baseball games on which he placed bets were compromised, influenced, or manipulated in any way.”

Of course, if MLB or any other league was truly concerned about integrity, it would not have formed partnerships with gambling companies in the first place. Still, Rob Manfred cannot be expected to pursue the moral high ground when no other commissioner is, and when media companies are eager for their own taste of the once-forbidden fruit. (The Athletic has its own partnership with BetMGM).

The league sent a message Tuesday – coincidentally or not – on the same day Ippei Mizuhara, Shohei Ohtani’s former interpreter, pleaded guilty to bank and tax fraud charges in federal court. Mizuhara, who bet with an illegal bookmaker, faces a total maximum sentence of 33 years. The players suspended by the league were flagged by a legal sports gambling operator. Warped as the system might be, it worked. The league, in its statement on the matter, cited, “significant cooperation from MLB’s legal sportsbook partners.”

Players dumb enough to bet on baseball through one of the companies legal in 38 of the 50 states and Washington D.C. – companies that are strictly regulated and track betting patterns meticulously – now know such a decision might jeopardize or even end their careers.

Marcano, then with the Pirates, bet on games involving his own team; hence, his lifetime ban under Major League Rule 21. The four others – A’s reliever Michael Kelly, Padres minor league pitcher Jay Groome, Phillies minor-league infielder José Rodríguez and Diamondbacks minor-league pitcher Andrew Saalfrak – bet on baseball but not their own clubs; hence, their one-year suspensions.

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Michael Kelly pitches for the Oakland Athletics against the Tampa Bay Rays in a game in May 2024. (Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)

Beyond Marcano’s wagers of more than $150,000, the amounts bet were relatively small. Kelly gambled less than $100, Groome and Saalfrank less than $500, Rodriguez less than $750. Still, Rule 21 leaves no room for exceptions. The league could not exonerate players just because they wagered smaller amounts. It needs to enforce its rules, as it did with Pete Rose.

The legal sportsbook, according to a source briefed on the league’s investigation, alerted MLB to the five players’ actions in March, sometime before ESPN’s Tisha Thompson reported that money had been wired from Ohtani’s bank account to an illegal bookmaking operation. The two situations were independent of each other. The league was bound to proceed with its investigations of the five players it suspended regardless of anything else taking place. But news of Mizuhara’s gambling and theft surely made the league even more motivated to take the strongest possible stand.

A federal investigation revealed that Mizuhara stole more than $16 million from Ohtani to cover his gambling debts. The league continues to investigate Ohtani’s friend and former Angels infielder David Fletcher for betting with the same bookmaker as Mizuhara, but reportedly not on baseball. In 2015, the league fined former pitcher Jarred Cosart for the same infraction for which Fletcher is being investigated – betting illegally on other sports.

As for Ohtani, Mizuhara’s plea on Tuesday prompted the league to issue the following statement: “Based on the thoroughness of the federal investigation that was made public, the information MLB collected, and the criminal proceeding being resolved without being contested, MLB considers Shohei Ohtani a victim of fraud and this matter has been closed.”

Ohtani issued his own statement, saying in part, “Now that the investigation has been completed, this full admission of guilt has brought important closure to me and my family . . . It’s time to close this chapter, move on and continue to focus on playing and winning ballgames.”

People might still have their questions about Ohtani, wondering whether he indeed never bet, wondering how he could not have known what Mizuhara was doing. But considering the level of detail in the federal investigation, the league indeed was left with little if any room to probe deeper.

Not so with Marcano and Co., whose misdeeds were all but gift-wrapped by the legal sports book, leaving Manfred with a perfect opportunity to get tough. No one will miss Marcano, who becomes a footnote in baseball history. The other four might play again once their suspensions are complete, but it’s not as if any of them will be confused with Corbin Burnes or Aaron Judge.

The dance, for MLB and every other sports league partnering with gambling companies, could not be more delicate. The leagues want the gambling money. But if they lose their ability to preserve competitive integrity, they will cease to be taken seriously. So, MLB will ban a Marcano, and the NBA will ban a Jontay Porter. Then they will hold their collective breath the names don’t get any bigger, and the games eventually don’t lose luster.

(Top photo of Tucapita Marcano in July 2023: Michael Owens/Getty Images)



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