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MLB will face a reckoning on gambling. Tucupita Marcano's lifetime ban is just the beginning.

Major League Baseball’s reckoning with legalized sports gambling has only just begun. Now, the only questions are how deep it will go – and whether more prominent players will be ensnared in gambling on their sport.

It wouldn’t be accurate to call the lifetime ban of utility infielder Tucupita Marcano and the one-year suspensions of four more players a wake-up call. It’s more like when you awaken a few minutes before the alarm clock is set to go off, and you toss and turn, awaiting its inevitable buzz.

Now, it’s too late to hit the snooze button.

The 2018 Supreme Court ruling that has brought legalized sports gambling to 38 states made Tuesday’s actions – in which five players violated – only a matter of time. No, there’s no evidence of game-fixing or sharing of privileged information, but it’s also a great time to remind ourselves we don’t know what we don’t know.

But Marcano’s banishment, along with suspensions to Andrew Saalfrank, Michael Kelly, Jose Rodriguez and Jay Groome – the lone player yet to make his major league debut – only confirmed the inevitable trappings of a post-PASPA world.

Follow every MLB game: that preceded this one: It’s pretty easy to catch wrongdoers.

But it also crystallizes a modern reality where a player can dial up his FanDuel account one moment, and then amble in the training room to see who’s hurt the next. To place a seemingly harmless and MLB-legal NBA bet one second and compete for nine innings moments later.

And to exist in a bubble where even the simple act of watching another MLB game on MLB TV will be accompanied by an incessant wave of FanDuel commercials – the music set to "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" – imploring viewers to bet over/unders on strikeout totals or anytime home runs. All using current MLB players as examples.

Hey, that’s how official partnerships go.

This isn’t to suggest hundreds of players do not take Rule 21 seriously. It’s simply to note that the collision of legalized sports gambling and clubhouse culture was going to create friction.

This is a world where the March Madness pool in any spring clubhouse might feature more money changing hands than you take home in several months. Where fantasy football dominates the late-season and offseason discourse – and those that can afford it cough up five figures simply for the buy-in.

It’s all relative in a room where the average salary is in the seven figures. Yet the messaging – further driven home carpet-bombing advertising to glean market share – remains problematic.

Tucupita Marcano was banned for life after he placed bets on games involving his team.

Young man blues

The least surprising element of the players suspended? Their ages.

Only Kelly, a 31-year-old who’s pitched for the A’s, Guardians and Phillies, was old enough to rent a car in most states when he placed the bets that got him in trouble.

Rodriguez was 20. Groome was 21, betting on baseball in the bubble when he began wagering on MLB games in July 2020. Saalfrank was 24 and Marcano 23, all of them barely above the legal gambling age of 21 in most states (it’s 18, amazingly enough, in Kentucky, Rhode Island, Wyoming, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia).

According to the Responsible Gambling Council, people between the ages of 18 and 24 are “at high risk of developing gambling problems,” thanks to a still-developing brain, and incomplete emotional and logical development.

This isn’t surprising to anyone who’s been around a young person, almost always male, discovering the joys of a late-night odyssey or the dopamine of a three-team parlay. In coming years, the MLB player population will be comprised of individuals accustomed to betting on apps, perhaps even on baseball, perhaps even with a friendly campus bookie.

Sports gambling will become even more normalized. The young player of the future will likely require even more training and education beyond spring-training seminars and a QR code posted in a clubhouse.

Gambling is hard – and ‘experts’ aren’t any better

Shoutout to MLB for posting the Ls of the five suspended players. Marcano lost a staggering 95.7% of bets placed on MLB games, this out of $150,000 wagered on baseball.

The others’ wagers are more relatable to the everyman – although it’s staggering to think they might have thrown away careers for such picayune ventures.

Saalfrank placed one bet on college baseball – and lost a $1.80 parlay. He bet $444 and lost $272 on major league games.

Groome bet $454 and had a net loss of $434. Kelly bet $99 on baseball, an average of $9.92 per bet. He had a net win of $28.30.

That’s less than a third of daily meal money allotted major league players.

The grander point is that treading water is largely the best-case scenario for sports gamblers – even those highly knowledgeable in their field.

Addiction knows no boundaries

The 37-page indictment tying Ippei Mizuhara to more than $41 million in gambling losses was a startling glimpse into the depths of addiction. Mizuhara, fired by the Dodgers in March when he was accused of stealing nearly $17 million from superstar Shohei Ohtani, ultimately bet on overseas contests he knew nothing about and domestic games for which he only had a passing knowledge.

And the vast majority of his bets came in a state where gambling is not legalized.

Thirty-eight states have legalized sports gambling, and MLB says it’s OK to gamble in all of them, provided you don’t bet on baseball. Yet addiction does not recognize state lines, which is how Mizuhara ended up in hock with a California bookmaker for eight figures, and how former Ohtani teammate David Fletcher reportedly placed bets with that same bookie (Fletcher remains under MLB investigation).

California, Texas and Florida are among the states who have not yet legalized sports betting; they are home to nine MLB franchises. And so the seeds of addiction can be sown in places where it’s legal, yet what’s a young man with tons of disposable income to do for some action when he’s landlocked?

In short, we probably have not seen the end of Rule 21 violations that involve illegal betting – even as legal betting seems like it’s everywhere.

MLB’s symbiotic gaming relationship

Weird dance the sports leagues got going there – upholding “the integrity of the games” while aiming to profit off legalized wagering.

Legalized gambling is tangibly and intangibly very good for baseball. It already provides significant revenue in terms of official partnerships and data licensing. It also markedly increases “engagement” with the game, and anyone who’s hung around to watch the end of a 7-1 game with a total of 8.5 knows of said engagement.

And ensnaring the five rulebreakers shows how cooperation with casinos and regulators can, in fact, catch wrongdoers. Perhaps it will head off an even bigger scandal down the road.

Yet there are other intangibles to consider, including the distaste regular fans have shown for incessant gambling ads – from broadcasts to ballparks.

After the 2018 PASPA ruling, perhaps the leagues had little choice but to fully embrace the new reality. It will come with collateral damage, and we’ve likely only seen the first of it.

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