Did Major League Baseball really need the money?

About the league that is holding hands with DraftKings and other sports betting entities as it braces for a potential bombshell with the Shohei Ohtani story.

I don’t think I’m naïve when it comes to the money in professional sports. There are machines within the big machine, and a number of the unseen actors are in the business strictly to make more money. Once they make more money, they shift their attention to finding even more ways to make even more money.

The money involved in partnerships with DraftKings, FanDuel, and other sports gambling outfits must be unthinkable. There might be something of an evolution in the thinking of commissioners, owners, and others in charge for the leagues when it comes to sports betting. Perhaps there is a softening around some of the stigmas with gambling. For baseball specifically, one might even argue that any softening is an improvement to some out-of-date thinking. But whatever changes in thinking might be happening to inform these gambling partnerships, the leagues didn’t change their stance on betting because of a commitment to being more progressive.

It’s the money. Of course it’s the money. There must be so much of it. But even so, as this bizarre and fishy story involving Shohei Ohtani and his interpreter Ippei Mizuhara unfolds, I find myself wondering: was it worth it? Did MLB really need the money?

If I asked the owners and other people profiting from these partnerships, they would laugh and laugh and laugh. They wouldn’t even indulge the question or acknowledge the word “need.” They would laugh because it’s all so simple: if there’s more money to be had, then that’s the direction they will go.

The thinking with these sports betting partnerships always seemed shortsighted. Each league is normalizing and encouraging gambling on sports. They are doing so in ads that contain their logos with spokespeople from their leagues. At the same time, they are continuing to wag their finger at players, coaches, or any other members of their organizations who would even consider a bet on their sport or placed in their capacity as a member of said league.

Presumably, these people would hand-wave these concerns and argue that the distinction is clear. But it’s just not difficult to imagine the many scenarios where the lines blur. When the time comes for the league to investigate and punish someone employed by the league or one of their teams for gambling, the whole process will be loaded with hypocrisy and reasonable questions about the league’s credibility in this area.

The story of Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from baseball is complicated. As time has passed, questions come and go about the severity of Rose’s sentence and how it holds up compared to the immoral and nasty behavior of other figures in baseball over the years. To be clear, those questions are only worthy of serious inquiry specific to his punishment for gambling. Rose has serious allegations of sexual misconduct that disqualify him from any sort of sympathy or public rallying cries.

When it comes to sports betting, it is interesting to observe that the same league that banned Rose for gambling might now have a historic moment in a World Series game preceded immediately by a noisy ad reminding fans that it’s not too late to get your bets in for the final score or what will happen in the closing innings of the game.

With how fast things are moving and changing in this area, it’s interesting to revisit A. Bartlett Giamatti’s writing about his decision, as MLB commissioner, to issue a lifetime ban to Rose.

“If one is responsible for protecting the integrity of baseball—that is, the game’s authenticity, honesty, and coherence—then the process one uses to protect the integrity of baseball must itself embody that integrity.”

Is such a process even possible when you’re in business with gambling companies? Maybe it is. But it’s more complicated now.

None of these questions are directly related to what is happening with Ohtani’s situation. This is all going to unfold, apparently, as part of a federal investigation into a bookie in California named Mathew Bowyer. From the sounds of things, we’re going back to the old images of gambling with this one: the shady characters, the bets placed under the table, and the consequences for going into business with those characters.

Whatever happens with Ohtani and Mizuhara, Major League Baseball won’t be forced to confront the most problematic components of these partnerships as part of their response. At least not this time around. But Rob Manfred and company will still have to appear and speak to this situation and attempt to take the moral high ground when it comes to sports gambling.

They will attempt to do so with a straight face as they continue to profit from loud partnerships with the companies that make it easier than ever to gamble, that speed up the process of people betting and losing significant money, that remove the barriers that might have previously prevented people from spiraling and getting themselves and their friends into serious trouble.

Partnerships with DraftKings and the likes are in their infancy, yet we are already getting a preview of the potential messes these deals will create. You don’t have to be a self-proclaimed idealist like Giamatti was to see the problems that are coming. And while a scandal involving the best baseball player in the world is unlikely to be the big moment of reckoning, it should at least give the people in charge a sobering reminder of the risks involved with getting into the sports betting business.