FILE - Pittsburgh Pirates' Tucupita Marcano jogs off the field...

FILE - Pittsburgh Pirates' Tucupita Marcano jogs off the field against the Seattle Mariners in a baseball game, Friday, May 26, 2023, in Seattle. Major League Baseball has permanently banned Marcano Tuesday, June 4, 2024, for betting on baseball and suspended the four other players for one year after finding the players placed unrelated bets with a legal sportsbook. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File) Credit: AP/Lindsey Wasson

When Shohei Ohtani was implicated in a gambling scandal, unwittingly drained of nearly $17 million by interpreter/confidant Ippei Mizuhara, the public was swiftly assured of two things.

One, that Ohtani himself did not accrue any of the massive debts Mizuhara was siphoning out of his bank accounts. And two — a point of much greater importance — that neither Ohtani nor his interpreter bet on baseball.

Some remain skeptical of those claims, and the speed to which Mizuhara copped to his plea deal certainly reflected Major League Baseball’s desire to quickly move past a high-profile gambling mess involving its biggest box-office star.

Yet two months later, MLB had another fire to put out — a bunch of smaller blazes, not on the scale of Ohtani’s inferno but with the potential to be far more dangerous to the sport’s integrity. These were lesser names, two major-leaguers and three minor-leaguers, guilty of committing a significantly greater crime: actually betting on baseball in violation of what is defined by MLB as Rule 21.

The only surprising part about these revelations? That it took this long to happen.

Ever since 2018, when the Supreme Court’s ruling opened the floodgates for legalized sports gambling in 38 states, followed by the proliferation of betting apps and the broadcast carpet-bombing of site ads, the threat level has been rising.

“The day that PASPA [Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act] was overturned, I looked at a friend of mine and said, this is going to get ugly really quickly,” said Dr. Rachel Volberg, an epidemiology professor at UMass Amherst who has been involved in the research of problem gambling for the past 40 years. “And to be honest, it got uglier so much more quickly than I had anticipated. It has been a major transformation in sports and sports betting, and I think the repercussions are going to play out for a number of years.”

Volberg sees this transformation on a curve, which would suggest a leveling off at some later date and eventually a more sane assimilation for the society at large.

Obviously, sports gambling is not a new phenomenon. But what used to be done almost exclusively through illegal sportsbook operators is now as close and convenient as the iPhone in a person’s back pocket. Also, the sheer scale of bets that can be placed — from specific props on the performance of individual players to ever-changing money lines during the game — only serves to amplify the attraction.

Tech keeps track

The technology that makes this possible, however, also makes it easier to track, which is how MLB snared this latest round of offenders, citing “significant cooperation from MLB’s legal sportsbook partners” in Tuesday’s statement regarding the investigation.

As much as MLB strives to educate players during their development as well as every year in spring training (Rule 21 is prominently displayed in every clubhouse), its best safeguard for the integrity of the game would seem to be transparency and severe punishment.

Not only did MLB list the disciplinary action against the players, but their offenses were detailed down to the nickel. The Padres’ Tucupita Marcano received a lifetime ban for betting on the Pirates last year while on Pittsburgh’s major-league roster, and though he didn’t appear in any of those games, he still was at PNC Park receiving treatment for a season-ending knee injury. Marcano placed 387 baseball bets totaling more than $150,000, with 25 of those bets on the Pirates.

The other four players received one-year suspensions because it was determined, in accordance with Rule 21, that “they had no duty to perform” in the games they gambled on.

A’s pitcher Michael Kelly was a member of Houston’s Triple-A affiliate when he made 10 bets on major-league games, including three on the Astros, for a total of $99.22. Padres minor-league pitcher Jay Groome gambled a total of $453.74 on 32 MLB bets and had a net loss of $433.54. Phillies minor-league infielder Jose Rodriguez placed 31 bets, including some on college baseball, for a total of $749.09. Diamondbacks minor-league pitcher Andrew Saalfrank was at Arizona’s low-A affiliate when he made 29 bets on baseball for a total of $445.87.

In each case, MLB made sure to emphasize that there was no evidence that “any outcomes in the baseball games on which he placed bets were compromised, influenced or manipulated in any way.” (The players denied it, too.)

We’ll have to take MLB’s word on that. And remember, these are just the players who’ve been caught. While MLB permits gambling on nearly everything else but baseball, it would be naive to think that only five out of the thousands employed at every level have ever crossed that line — if not directly, then by some other proxy means.

“The longstanding prohibition against betting on Major League Baseball games by those in the sport has been a bedrock principle for over a century,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “We have been clear that the privilege of playing in baseball comes with a responsibility to refrain from engaging in certain types of behavior that are legal for other people .  .  . MLB will continue to invest heavily in integrity monitoring, educational programming and awareness initiatives with the goal of ensuring strict adherence to this fundamental rule of our game.”

Adding to the problem: Sports gambling has taken hold of the younger generation, and baseball players — who enter the industry in their teens or early 20s — are right in that wheelhouse, just as your average college student would be. Of the five players nabbed in this disciplinary round, four were in their early 20s. Kelly was the oldest at 31.

“I think for young males, it tends to be competitive risk-taking, like what happens in sports,” said Dr. Marc Potenza, a psychiatry professor at Yale who has done extensive work with problem gambling. “It makes a lot of sense that these two kind of combine or intersect in a way.

“Now, not everyone is going to engage. Not everyone is going to find it impossible to turn off the switch when faced with adult responsibility. I think that most adults gamble and most adults gamble without developing problems. That being said, there are some people who develop significant problems and will persist in gambling despite significant adverse consequences.”

The big question: Why?

MLB has had its share of adverse consequences in the past two months alone. Mizuhara faces up to 33 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to bank fraud and tax fraud. As for the banned players, they’ve seriously derailed their careers, and based on the relatively small sums of money involved, it apparently wasn’t to get rich.

Then why? The gateway for players, like everyone else, is seemingly harmless wagers — fostered by a culture of March Madness pools and fantasy leagues — that naturally migrate to omnipresent phone apps, which already have burrowed a foothold into our behavioral patterns.

How do you combat a temptation that people stare at every other minute of their waking existence (not to mention get blasted by during every TV sporting event, courtesy of those same leagues)?

“There’s going to be a number of pretty sad stories,” Volberg said. “The leagues have to make clear that people will be identified if they make these kind of bets, that they’re going to be found out .  .  . and when they do this type of gambling, the penalties are severe. I’m a big believer in people sort of understanding — at least before they get into gambling — that there may be risks and hopefully not developing a gambling problem.”

It’s a slippery slope. On one hand, MLB rakes in revenue from betting sites and allows its own officials/coaches/players to gamble on the other sports without penalty. But what if someone gets in way over his head on NFL parlays and that desperation leads him to wager on baseball, on which he has inside information?

Maybe that didn’t help Marcano — MLB pointed out that he lost all of his parlays involving the Pirates and won only 4.3% of all of his MLB-related bets — but it’s highly doubtful that he’ll be the last to try it. Plus, the gap between simply betting on your team and actually doing something to impact the outcome of a play or final score isn’t really that big a leap. Once that happens, it’s game over.

“You have all these options,” Potenza said. “What is the likelihood that one can find a struggling sports individual that is vulnerable to — not even throwing the game, but going out injured so that they don’t make the [over/under] line of how many points they’re going to score or rebounds they’re going to get, as in the case of the Toronto Raptors player [Jontay Porter].

“Can that happen in baseball? Sure. I think all sporting events are vulnerable. This is going to happen, there are going to be new ways for trying to catch it because there is a digital trail that’s often left, and it will take time for there to be a new equilibrium.”

Getting to that equilibrium, with the sports leagues’ integrity still intact, seems to grow more challenging by the day.

Every night of his major league career, Luis Arraez of the Padres has gone to bed a .300-hitter – one of only 11 players since1901 who can say that:

Player Years Games Career BA

Maurice Archdeacon 1923-25 127 .333

Luis Arraez 2019-24 598 .327

Jimmie Foxx 1925-45 2,317 .325

Earle Combs 1924-35 1,455 .325

Riggs Stephenson 1921-34 1,310 .336

Stan Musial 1941-63 3,026 .331

Dale Alexander 1929-33 662 .331

Joe DiMaggio 1936-51 1,736 .325

Dale Mitchell 1946-56 1,127 .312

Barney McCosky 1939-53 1,170 .312

Bob Fothergill 1922-33 1,106 .325

SOURCE: baseballreference.com

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