An Unwarranted Gamble

To err is human, to forgive divine.

Everybody’s heard that saying before. And everybody knows that, when you’re talking about errors, there’s a good chance you’re talking about baseball. The forgiveness part usually doesn’t apply to baseball. (Unless you’re a Cubs fan; they seem to have achieved divinity a long time ago). Except lately, that seems to be changing.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has indicated that he will, at the very least, consider Pete Rose’s bid to be reinstated into the game’s good graces. Other reports have Rose being allowed to participate in this year’s All-Star festivities (to be held in Cincinnati).

What gives? Rose was given a lifetime ban, and last I checked he was still working on his first lifetime. Have his transgressions mellowed over these 25 years, like a fine wine? Is there really something new to consider in Rose’s case? Or is something else going on that has nothing to do with Rose and everything to do with an entirely different agenda?…

The DFR: BaseballI must not have been paying attention; otherwise I would surely have caught on to MLB’s new love affair with long before I attended my first game this season.

But there I was, at the Oakland Coliseum a few weeks back,  unaware that baseball–that most prudish of sports when it comes to gambling–had fallen in love with a new “official partner,” until I saw the ad for DraftKings on the stadium message boards. Happily, you don’t need to attend a game to witness MLB’s bromance with DraftKings; the DK logo features on (on the Fantasy menu tab), and they even have their own segment on MLB Network’s Quick Pitch! A many-splendoured thing, indeed.

…maybe the review for reinstatement, and allowing Rose to participate when his old club hosts the All-Star Game, has little to do with Charlie Hustle, and a lot more to do with Manfred and MLB hustling to shield themselves against accusations of hypocrisy.

No one seems to mind that DraftKings is an “official partner” whose business is banned in five states due to laws against endeavors that offer cash prizes. (Phew! Thank goodness MLB only has teams in two of those states. Otherwise that might get embarrassing.) DraftKings helpfully notes, in their website’s FAQ, that theirs is a game of skill, and “operated 100% legally under United States and Canadian law.” This is similar to the argument, made by and mentioned in an earlier DFR post, that fantasy sports are not gambling, and besides even if they are they have a specific exemption from Congress anyway, so there.

Fine. I will reiterate: fantasy sports may be 100% legal–or, as I and guys who sell things that “fell off a truck” like to say, “nice and legal”–and they don’t meet the textbook definition of gambling according to the law. Even poker has been deemed to be not gambling, even though some states have laws that say exactly the contrary. Everybody has fallen in love–much like our oats-sowing friends at MLB–with all sorts of stuff that, historically and according to most people’s usual understanding of the term, would be considered gambling. So be it. Nothing I write here, or what anyone else writes in a more prominent venue, will change any of that.

But, I do believe that the troubles that may come with these games apply equally to every sport, no matter which fantasy company is involved. (Again, review the earlier post for particulars on how all this could go horribly wrong.)

Furthermore, there remains what has come to be called “the optics” of the situation. What sort of optics are folks likely to see when the commissioner of a sport that has wholeheartedly embraced a “not quite but it feels like it” gambling business is called upon to judge someone who was banned from the game because of…wait for it…gambling?

See, that’s where all this movement on the Pete Rose situation starts to look shifty. Nothing has changed about what Rose did to get himself banned for life. It’s highly unlikely that Rose invented a time machine that allowed him to go back to the late ’80s and prevent himself from betting on baseball (or covering up the evidence a little better). And Rob Manfred himself has been quoted: “The most fundamental rule in baseball that’s been there forever is Rule 21. It prohibits anybody who’s on the field from betting on baseball or betting on any sport. The rule is clear that if you bet on baseball you will be banished for life.” That seems pretty cut and dried; what is there to review in Pete Rose’s case?

But maybe the review for reinstatement, and allowing Rose to participate when his old club hosts the All-Star Game, has little to do with Charlie Hustle, and a lot more to do with Manfred and MLB hustling to shield themselves against accusations of hypocrisy.

By all we’ve seen of the evidence, Rose’s past admissions, and the commissioner’s own words, there’s no way the lifetime ban should be lifted. If, however, Manfred somehow rules in Rose’s favor, MLB’s embrace of the fantasy league business may be a heavily influencing factor. Such a decision will be, at the very least, a tacit admission that baseball does not find gambling so objectionable after all–and Rule 21 may go the way of the dodo, with tremendous potential consequences for the future.

A previous commentary in this space wondered aloud what would be Rob Manfred’s agenda as the newly appointed commissioner. “Covering baseball’s ass” did not make it into that discussion–but it may be high on the agenda in the New York offices. We’ll just have to see how this plays out, and what it all means for baseball and its fans going forward. There’s a chance that baseball will soon make a huge error; if baseball errs, will the fans find their divine side and decide to forgive? I wouldn’t bet on it.


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