In an article in the Boston Herald over the weekend, Michael Silverman spoke with Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Connor about how legalized gambling might affect the game (and a hat tip to Hardball Talk for alerting me to this article). In it, O’Connor is worried about the integrity of his sport in the light of legalized gambling.
First of all, I have a message for anyone who gambles on Minor League Baseball:
You have a serious gambling problem. Please seek help immediately.
Gambling on the minors is not a big industry. In fact, no one seems to have much of a clue as to how prevalent it is. It seems foolish to bet on something where the participants are told that winning the contest is secondary to their athletic development. I can’t tell you how many minor league games I’ve seen blown because a slumping pitcher gets called in from the bullpen in a critical spot because the team wants him to get his innings in. Professional athletes are competitive by nature and I’m sure that every minor league player who takes the field wants to win that game. But I’m also sure that very few of them get choked up when they don’t. Every minor league hitter would rather go 3 for 4 with two home runs and a double while his team lost than go 0 for 4 and have his team win. The goal is to get to the majors. It’s not to win the California League title.
But that also makes Minor League Baseball ripe for corruption. As O’Connor notes, minor leaguers are underpaid and many of them know that they are never going to see the major leagues. It might not take a lot of money to tempt one of those players to hit the first batter of the game, for example. If you’re a minor league ballplayer making less than the minimum wage, it’s not hard to rationalize taking a couple hundred dollars for something that has no effect on the game or your future prospects.
That’s where the trap begins. Because as O’Connor notes, once a player has been compromised, he’ll be open to blackmail throughout his entire career. Sure, it might be hard for a crime syndicate to drop $100,000 on a Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp/Pensacola Blue Wahoos game without attracting a ton of suspicion. You’d have a lot of trouble finding someone who’d even take that bet.
But what happens if a player involved in a minor league fix makes the major leagues? Whomever bankrolled the player in the minors would have that player in his pocket forever. They could approach the player and say that if they didn’t throw a certain game at the major league level, evidence of his corruption at the minor league level could be handed over to the commissioner’s office. Fixing games at the major league level is almost unthinkable, if only because major league ballplayers make so much money that no wiseguy could tempt them with enough money to make them risk their career. The amount of money that gamblers would have to offer to get a group of major leaguers to throw a game is so great that they’d never be able to get a bookmaker to cover enough bets to make it worth their while.
But the minor leaguers are the weak link in MLB’s integrity. Not only do they not make too much money to be bought, they make so little money that you and I could probably scrounge up enough dough to tempt some minor leaguers.
Let me make one thing clear. The vast majority of minor league players are honest. But like any profession, there are bad apples. And you know the saying that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch? It would only take one dishonest minor league ballplayer to convince others that they were fools to not get in on a good deal. That’s the way these gambling scandals worked in the pre-Black Sox days. It’s the way that NCAA point-shaving scandals happen. It could happen again on a smaller scale in the minors and then spread to the majors.
Corruption born in the minors is a threat to the major leagues. MLB games could be fixed by ballplayers who feel they have no choice but to cooperate or face the consequences of actions that they made out of desperation years ago in the minors.
O’Connor knows this is a problem, but as he said, there isn’t much he or Minor League Baseball can do about it. Minor League ballplayers are the employees of the major league team that employs them. Major League Baseball also knows this is a problem, according to O’Connor, but at the moment, they are more focused on integrity issues surrounding wagering at the major league level. We saw this just this past week with the announcement that teams will have to submit their lineups to the commissioner’s office before making them public.
MLB doesn’t have their head in the sand on the issue of the vulnerability of minor league ballplayers to corruption. In fact, in that Boston Herald article, an MLB spokesman admits that “Real-world examples show that the lower levels of any professional sport are more vulnerable to problems with sports betting than the higher levels.” But so far, MLB doesn’t want to do anything about it that might cost them money, such as pay the minor leaguers more.
It seems unlikely that bookmakers will ever handle much action on minor league baseball games. But it doesn’t seem like it would take a lot of money to give a gambler an edge. Over the course of a 140-game season, you could see how a criminal group could make it work. Paying minor league ballplayers more would not end this threat, but it would certainly make it much, much more difficult to pull off.
I’ve always believed that the integrity of the sport was compromised by the way that MLB teams exploit their minor league talent. But I always meant that in a moral sense in that the minor leaguers were being exploited. The rise of legalized gambling may turn that moral threat to MLB’s integrity into a criminal threat. MLB needs to do something about this before it’s too late. And paying the minor leaguers a reasonable salary is the place to start.