UPDATE: It appears that MLB agrees.
Every so often, like most baseball writers, I look at myself in the mirror and ask myself an important question: Why am I not writing about Alex Rodriguez? Thankfully, the richest Yankee provided me with ample opportunity this week, as Major League Baseball announced that they were once again investigating Rodriguez for his alleged participation in illegal high-stakes poker games. This isn’t the first time that the league has considered Rodriguez’s poker habits: back in 2005, the Yankees and MLB cautioned him about his involvement, informing him that it could be negative for his image and worrying about the propriety of his gambling large sums of money with people who may also wager on baseball.
While the games may have been illegal, it’s not clear that Rodriguez himself broke any laws by merely playing. (The relevant laws depend on where the games took place; Alex is alleged to have played a couple games in California, but RadarOnline.com has also published allegations that Rodriguez attempted to organize his own game in Miami in 2009.) The trouble is that, of all the potential illegal activities Rodriguez could have been connected to, there are few so troubling to baseball as gambling, which has a 90-year history of being baseball’s cardinal sin, inspiring baseball commissioners to overpunish those suspected of gambling for nearly a century.
There have been three major gambling incidents in baseball worth mentioning: the Black Sox scandal, the yearlong Leo Durocher suspension, and the lifetime ban of Pete Rose. Each involved a relatively new commissioner who felt that he needed to make a statement at the beginning of his tenure. We all know about the Black Sox and Pete Rose, but the Durocher scandal is worth remembering because of its relevance to Rodriguez’s current problems.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed as baseball’s first commissioner with the explicit mandate to deal with the greatest scandal in baseball history, the conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series, as gambler Arnold Rothstein reputedly offered a number of White Sox (considered much stronger than the Cincinnati Reds team that won the NL that year) a great deal of money to lose the Series. Landis responded by permanently banishing eight members of the Chicago White Sox; for their involvement in the scandal the team has since been known as the “Black Sox,” and those eight players were immortalized in Eliot Asinof’s “8 Men Out” and the film of the same name.
Like Landis, Bart Giamatti came into his office in 1989, while the Pete Rose scandal was taking off. Giamatti retained lawyer John Dowd to investigate Rose, and prevailed on Rose to accept a voluntary lifetime ban from baseball — the same lifetime ban that had been received by the eight men out. After lying for years about his involvement, Rose finally admitted that he had indeed bet on baseball in his 2004 memoir “My Prison Without Bars.”
A quarter-century after the Black Sox, a new commissioner sought to make his own mark on the game by imposing a draconian sentence for gambling. “Happy” Chandler, the commissioner who famously gave Branch Rickey his blessing to integrate the Brooklyn Dodgers, succeeded Landis as commissioner in 1945. And at the time, Dodger manager Leo Durocher was one of the villains of baseball, an obnoxious loudmouth whose taste for fancy clothes, fast women, and poker led him into frequent debt. One of Durocher’s friends was the actor George Raft, who had a lot of dubious friends, and they used to use Durocher’s apartment (when Durocher wasn’t there) for illegal poker games. Durocher was first warned away from Raft, and he obeyed; but Chandler later decided to suspend him for the entire 1947 season anyway. (In a self-serving Sports Illustrated article two decades later, Chandler claimed that the Durocher suspension “probably served to weaken my position as commissioner.”)
Rodriguez, like Durocher, hasn’t done anything wrong in a baseball sense. Gambling on baseball is a serious offense, but gambling itself is a victimless crime, if a crime at all. The trouble for baseball is propriety; that’s why the Yankees and MLB were so pained in 2005, and are so frustrated now. According to the New York Daily News in 2005, Rodriguez “wasn’t ordered to stay out of the clubs… there is little either the Yankees or Selig can do to stop Rodriguez, officials say, because he isn’t breaking the law, even if the club operators are.”
In response to the latest allegations regarding his poker playing, Rodriguez’s publicist issued a notable not-a-denial, and MLB is considering its options. According to ESPN, Major League Baseball is exploring suspending him: “Because he had been warned about this before, I would say a possible suspension would be very much in play.”
As much as I love watching Alex Rodriguez’s ongoing celebrity train wreck — “In a lot of ways Alex is no different than Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears,” one baseball executive told ESPN — I think it would be a very bad precedent if Alex Rodriguez were suspended unless the legal investigation reveals that he actually broke the law. History has looked kindly on the lifetime bans of the Black Sox and of Pete Rose; baseball’s integrity is severely called into question when players and executives under contract place monetary wagers on games. But the Durocher suspension was seen as egregious at the time, and continues to be seen as such by baseball historians.
If Rodriguez wasn’t gambling on baseball, and he didn’t do anything illegal, it would be a horrible precedent for baseball to set. However, that’s not the only thing they would need to worry about. The MLB Players’ Association tends to get up in arms whenever a player is suspended for something that is not explicitly prohibited in the collective bargaining agreement, and well they should be: if Alex Rodriguez was not specifically ordered to stop playing poker, and he continued to play poker, it’s hard to see what grounds MLB has to suspend him. Of course, if he did break the law, the point becomes moot. But the operative consideration should be the law, not baseball’s image.
With Alex Rodriguez, it’s always something. He appears determined to humiliate himself at every juncture. But you can’t punish him for that.
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