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A Minor Problem? O'Conner Wary Of MiLB Sports Betting

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Pat O'Conner (File photo)

If it were up to Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner, you wouldn’t be able to bet on minor league games at all. If he got half his wish, gambling on minor league games would be limited to moneyline wagers only; that is, only bets tied to the end result of a game. But as more states contemplate the legalization of sports betting and Major League Baseball embraces the prop bet as a new means of fan engagement, O’Conner is facing reality.

“Sports book gambling is going to be part of the future,” he said. “We are not trying to kill the concept. We are just trying to protect our business. And proposition betting is very, very complicated for us.”

A prop bet is an in-game wager made on the occurrence or non-occurrence of an event not tied directly to the final outcome of the game; will Pitcher A strike out Batter B in the fifth inning? What is the over/under on the number of pitches he will throw? While the league minimum salary in Major League Baseball is $550,000 and the average salary is $4.52 million, the 7,500 players in the minor leagues are not unionized and salaries start at just $1,100 per month. It’s not a stretch to think a player barely making a living wage might accept money to influence the outcome of a game.

To address that issue, O’Conner sent out a four-page memo to all minor leagues and their clubs on April 11 explaining MiLB policy on sports betting. While baseball’s famous Rule 21 already addresses many gambling issues, O’Conner’s memo included a special section on game fixing:

Baseball personnel are prohibited from influencing or manipulating (or attempting to influence or manipulate) any baseball game or event so that the final outcome or any other outcome or aspect of the game or event is fully determined by anything other than its merits.

O’Conner’s fears are not unfounded. The NCAA, which is the most logical comparison to MiLB, polls student-athletes every four years about gambling activity. Fifty-five percent of male college athletes reported gambling for money, while as many as 2.4 percent of basketball players and 2.3 percent of football players have reported being asked to influence the outcome of a game. The numbers are even more disturbing when it is considered athletes under-report such incidents for fear of repercussions. And it doesn’t take big money to make a big impact; former University of Toledo running back Quinton Broussard admitted to purposely fumbling in a 2005 bowl game for $500.

In MiLB, the concern extends to the league’s 225 umpires, countless official scorers, 5,000 full-time employees and 10,000 game-night employees. “You have an umpire who is going to call 300 pitches in a night,” O’Conner said. “Someone offers him $500 to make sure the first pitch in every other inning is a ball, and he can call the other 295 however he wants. Or an official scorer making $50 per night and someone offers $200 to make sure there are two errors in the game. They might think, ‘Oh, that’s easy.’ But it’s not it. Once they have you, they have you. The people who say that would never happen? Well, they need to get out more.”

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A string of gambling scandals in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, the Taiwanese major league, shows just how bad the situation can be. From 2006-09, a gangster called Windshield Wiper orchestrated widespread game-fixing, in which dozens of players were paid to throw games. In 2016, four pitchers from the Yomiuri Giants, the oldest professional team in Japan, admitted to betting on games, causing three top executives to retire.

“Not being first won’t make it any easier to deal with,” O’Conner said. “This is a potential black eye on our game that we don’t need. At the minor league level, it’s not a matter of if it happens, it’s a matter of when it happens, and to what degree.”

O’Conner also feels that legalized gambling could put the “familial” atmosphere of the minor leagues, centered on the ability of the fan to get close to and interact with players, in jeopardy. “Say, at the booster club picnic, someone asks, ‘Is so-and-so going to pitch tomorrow night?’ And the answer is, ‘Well, he’s got a tender shoulder, but he’s going to try.’That’s a piece of information a gambler would love, because if you have a prop bet, you can go over/under on his innings. My concern is that we’ll have to close ranks and affect the way we interact with the people and compromise the atmosphere we’ve worked all these years to create.”

O’Conner’s memo also explicitly prohibits the disclosure of confidential information regarding player health, roster and lineups and mandates the immediate reporting of any suspected rule violations.

“We have to show that we’re serious about this,” O’Connor said. “It’s going to require vigilance.”

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