DAN BICKLEY

Recent MLB gambling suspensions a reminder the worst is yet to come

Jun 4, 2024, 4:25 PM | Updated: 4:28 pm

To most baseball fans in America, Andrew Saalfrank is an afterthought, a minnow caught inside a really big net.

He is also a reminder that the big fish is coming, along with a gambling scandal that will rock one of our major sports to the core in the near future.

The Diamondbacks relief pitcher was among a handful of bit players suspended from Major League Baseball for one year after sportsbook data proves he bet on the sport in 2021 and 2022 while toiling in the bushes as a minor league pitcher. His 29 total bets amounted to less than $500, including a $1.80 college baseball parlay.

These are the stakes in which Saalfrank has grounded a promising career, losing a crucial year in his development, gaining a stigma that will last forever.

Sad.

To baseball fans in Arizona, Saalfrank was part of the glorious chorus in the postseason of 2023, a small but effective supporting actor in the Diamondbacks’ unlikely romp to the World Series.

He was unflappable and bespectacled. He made his big-league debut in the heat of a September playoff push, retiring all five Colorado Rockies he faced with his parents in attendance, leaving the mound to a standing ovation. For an encore, he made two key appearances in huge games the following weekend at Wrigley Field. Manager Torey Lovullo once called him a “great player development story,” and that was before he appeared in 11 postseason games.

You don’t forget a player who was in the heat of a postseason battle every night. His suspension comes just as his career was on the ascent. His poor judgment carries a heavy price.

Yet these stories are nuanced and complicated. Once, the subject of gambling was taboo, a third rail in professional sports. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wanted no part of Las Vegas in any capacity.

Now, gaming is legal in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Sports leagues and media companies are promoting the endeavor with great economic incentive and advertising furor, even though they are surely aware of the societal dangers and the weighty issues of athletic integrity.

This year, the NBA has banned Toronto’s Jontay Porter for life. MLB just did the same with the Pirates’ Tucupita Marcano. You don’t care because these athletes mean nothing to you. And in most cases, sports leagues are not to blame for reckless stupidity of athletes.

Marcano bet over $150,000 and reportedly won only 4.3% of his MLB-related wagers. Meanwhile, Shohei Ohtani’s disgraced and felonious interpreter was notoriously bad at picking winners, the easiest of marks. Their futility and ignorance are cartoonish and laughable, but it shouldn’t distract from the heavy and lingering question:

How long before a star athlete is compromised by debt and/or greed, and thereby compelled to bet against his own team, throwing a game of enormous consequence?

After all, it’s already happened in our backyard, to ASU’s basketball team. Before the guardrails came off.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta mornings from 6-10 a.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7.

Dan Bickley

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Recent MLB gambling suspensions a reminder the worst is yet to come