Betting baseball: A BAD idea
The Dodgers are going to win the series. It’s a bleeping lock.
So said Harvey Keitel in the title role of the film “The Bad Lieutenant.” He was talking to his bookie about a fictitious playoff series between the Dodgers and the Mets. The Dodgers had won the first three games, and after already winning $15,000, he was betting on them to close out the series. But the Mets wouldn’t give up and, with each successive Dodgers loss, the lieutenant goes further into debt to his bookie. He ends up owing $180,000 and pays in full when he’s shot dead to end the movie. (Sorry, spoiler alert.)
The lieutenant spends most of the film doing hard drugs, having freaky sex, robbing criminals, stealing evidence and shooting his gun — hence the name “bad” lieutenant. Somehow, amidst all that, he’s also following the playoffs as the Dodgers just can’t seem to finish off the series. Strangely, he keeps encouraging his fellow police buddies to bet on the Mets with intelligent insights into exactly how they’ll win.
It’s an intense, original film that’s an interesting look at someone at rock bottom — though it features far too much Harvey Keitel nakedness for my tastes, which can be said of a lot of his movies. (Sorry, spoiler alert.)
There are a few flaws, baseball-wise, that kind of stand out. The playoff series is called the World Series, but it’s between the Mets and Dodgers, so it can only be a National League Championship Series. Also, the Dodgers wind up losing a series where they were ahead 3-0, which we all know could never happen — right, Yankees fans?
The reason I mention this film (besides to warn you about Harvey’s genitalia) is that it (the film, not Harvey’s man bits) demonstrates that baseball is very difficult to bet on.
First of all, for editorially imposed legal reasons I have to state that wagering on sports is against the law and what I’m talking about here is all “for entertainment purposes only.”
Las Vegas reports that $2.76 billion was wagered on sports in 2010 — which is approximately the entire national budget of North Korea. And, it is estimated by some, that illegal wagering is somewhere between $50 billion and $380 billion per year through bookmakers and online websites. There have actually been some attempts by U.S. representatives to legalize online sports gambling and then tax the profits. And this will probably eventually happen, just as they did with casinos and off-track horserace betting. There’s just too much money in it, and it’s growing year by year.
But gambling is an evil specter, and there are a great many people who feel that it needs to stay illegal because “gambling is immoral.”
Oh boy. Immorality. This is such a subjective matter in a culture — what’s immoral to one might be considered completely moral to another. Premarital sex is immoral to students and faculty at BYU, but not to students and faculty everywhere else. Rock music and dancing are immoral to the short-sighted adults of the “Footloose” town, but not to Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer. There are many things that might be considered questionable behavior but are not against the law. There are some people who are totally into dressing up in leather and shoving ball gags in their mouths, and that might seem “questionable” to you (or maybe it isn’t — you, dirty birdie).
Gambling can become quite a spiral, as an “unlucky” bettor tries to make up for his losses by continuing to throw good money after bad. I’ve had a few friends lose a lot of money to gambling and each of them claimed to be totally under control. They weren’t. I’m not saying these guys turned into Harvey’s bad lieutenant or, worse, Nic Cage in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Longest Movie Name Ever.” Not being able to pay your rent or eat food are things that indicate that something isn’t “under control.”
Some people claim that there’s a difference between betting and just gambling. That gambling is roulette. Red or Black. Let the spinning ball decide. Whereas, betting is feeling fairly certain of the probable outcome of an event and wagering accordingly. A skilled poker player can win regardless of what kind of cards he gets just by bluffing, knowing the statistical probabilities and reading other players.
But even by this strange standard, baseball wagering is definitely gambling.
There are a couple relevant quotes here. First, Yogi Berra: “There’s one word that describes baseball: you never know.” And Tommy Lasorda: “No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you’re going to win one-third of your games.”
In just the last week, Cy Young Award-winner Tim Lincecum and the World Champion Giants lost to the ever-so-mediocre Jason Marquis and the Nationals. Meanwhile the first-place Yankees lost three games in a row to a Tigers team that had just lost seven in a row.
And this is how it goes throughout the season for 162 games. It’s part of what makes baseball such an interesting sport. The truth is that with that many games, players are not going to be 100 percent, mentally and physically, for every game.
And yet with all of this randomness, $500 million is wagered on baseball every year in Vegas — which accounts for about 20 percent of all sports betting there. Basketball accounts for 30 percent (thanks in large part to March Madness — which a lot of people bet on). Football accounts for almost 45 percent — that’s over a billion dollars in Vegas alone. The rest is bet on curling (though I can’t prove this).
More than any other sports betting, I’ve heard about “systems” to pick the winners of baseball games — for entertainment purposes only. A lot of these are based on picking the underdog. It may be said that “everyone loves an underdog,” but this is not true at all in betting. It’s hard for people to put money on someone who everyone thinks is going to lose — no matter how advanced the mathematics are that support the choice. One of my friends is currently “entertaining” himself with a “strong pitchers vs. weak offenses” strategy. And, so far, it has been quite entertaining.
Betting on baseball can be quite maddening, and the very real grip of a gambling obsession can be overwhelming. Look at Pete Rose. This guy had plenty of money and plenty of other sports he could bet on. But it was his betting on baseball — including his own team — that sank him. Frankly, I don’t see what’s wrong with him betting on his own team to win. American businessmen do this every day when they invest in their own companies. It’s kind of like Pete was investing in his own team. And I guarantee you Pete Rose gave a crap whether his team (business) was winning games (profitable).
Towards the end of his career, Joe Torre looked like someone needed to wake him up every now and then while he was “managing” in the dugout. But if he had some juice on the game, you bet your butt he’d be paying attention.
And now Pete Rose is shunned. He will never be admitted into the Hall of Fame. Though I don’t really care about that. I probably won’t ever go to the Hall of Fame anyway. I’ve never been much for museums — unless I’m taking a girl there to show her how “sensitive and caring” I am.
Baseball also carries the burden of the Black Sox scandal — which is the gold standard of sports scandals. When players on the 1919 Chicago White Sox were bribed into throwing the World Series, it shocked the world. But it kind of made sense. The players were oppressively underpaid and, more importantly, baseball is hard to bet on.
This is probably why baseball only accounts for 20 percent of sports betting. It doesn’t take long for a bettor to figure out that baseball kicks your butt. Also, the betting lines that are used in baseball are a lot more complicated than football or basketball. Last year, Chad Millman of ESPN.com tried to come up with a way to create a betting line for baseball, similar to the much more popular football spreads, using each team’s total Runs/Hits/Errors. While I admire his creativity, this would require people to do math — actually, kind of a lot of math. And when you’re juiced up with money on the line, the last thing you want to do is work a calculator.
Regardless of whether you think gambling is harmless fun, a sound money-making opportunity or a path straight to hell, maybe it’s just best that people don’t bet on baseball and save their money for football or basketball. Or rent or groceries or whatever.
Being a baseball fan is hard enough with all the ups and downs and winning and losing that comes with every game and every season for every team. You don’t need to make things harder by getting your own money tangled up in it.
Unless you have good system. … In which case, you should email me immediately and we can win some crazy money — for entertainment purposes only, of course.