Portland, 2008. I'm standing at the entrance of the clubhouse, the cavernous confines of the now defunct Portland Beavers, staring at a list of horse names hastily scrawled in black magic marker across a hunk of brown cardboard. We're minutes from the start of the Kentucky Derby.
The latest Vegas odds are there, on the cardboard, next to the names of each horse that'll be running. The team's clubhouse attendant has been taking bets for the last few days, the totals marked near the horse names, little tickets marking picket fences around the board like horse pens.
I can't help but chuckle. After all, there is a strong possibility that no one in the room, not one of my teammates or the staff, has ever seen a horse race beyond the movie Seabiscuit. And yet, for the last few days, it's been horses, horses, horses. Almost everyone on the team has picked a horse and laid his money down. Some by the odds, some by the horse's name, some just to be an accessory to the chaos. Even the bat boys have made their bets.
"There's still time," says the team's clubhouse attendant/bookie, sliding up behind me, placing an encouraging palm on my shoulder. "Race hasn't started yet."
"Nah. I'm good," I say. "The only furniture I have back in my apartment is an air mattress, a lawn chair and an ironing board—I need all my money."
Minutes later, the team is gathered around the clubhouse's pair of flat-screen television sets, one at each pole, with its own cluster of players. The guys have long since tired of listening to all the hubbub about horses, what could be history, who might be a Triple Crown, what jockey is up for what…all they care about are the following words: "And they're off." The guys scream it, randomly, like a mini-bet that when they say it, the horses will actually obey them and start running.
"And they're off!"
"Aaaaaaand they're off!"
Sure enough, the bell rings and the horses break into action, charging down the thoroughfare, gulping air as the whip or their jockey forces them onward. No whip is required for the animals in the clubhouse, however. Insanity ensues. It's only the team, no elitists with big hats or billionaires with horse fetishes, just a pack of miserable Triple-A dirt bags with a meager sum of meal money on the line.
"Come on you son of a bitch, run! RUN YOU M----R F----R! I got $20 on this and I can't lose to Myro again!"
"Yes, he can!" yells Myro. "Yes he can. Trip! Fall! Break a leg!"
It didn't matter who won. Winning and losing really wasn't the point of it all. It was something to do. Something to get a rush from. Maybe for a few players, like Myro, it was $20 and some vitriol fuel, but that was it. A byproduct of the competitive athlete culture, something to get the competitive juices flowing—or if not to get them flowing, then at least a place to collect them lest they spill into other, less friendly places.
Before the Kentucky Derby, it was the College World Series. Before the College World Series, it was the Masters. Before the Masters, it was March Madness. Depending on the time of the month, a good clubhouse attendant will always have brackets up on a poster board next to the clubhouse's announcement board, next to the roster and, ironically, close to the rules and consequences about betting on baseball.
Gambling is alive and well in baseball culture. Players may not be betting on the game like Pete Rose did, but they sure as hell are betting on something. If it's not betting on sports games, it's betting on cards; if it's not betting on cards, it's pretty much any style of bet that a player can come up with—golfing on the off day. American Idol. Ultimate Frisbee. Bowling. Bass fishing. I've even seen guys bet on games of Connect Four—now that's just pathetic.
There is a never-ending supply of impromptu challenges of skill, like back during one of my earlier years with the Padres, when David Wells was still around. The big league club brought in a basketball hoop and placed bets on consecutive free-throw totals. In 2008, my old San Antonio Missions team had an entire Olympics program made up, with individual and team events and fake countries.
While many of these examples are players taking relatively innocuous forays into the world of gambling, or buying a ticket on the roller coaster of team bragging rights, there were some serious, even damning gambling issues.
When I was injured in 2010, I missed an entire season of baseball. I didn't know what was going on in the big leagues or Triple-A—and Triple-A just happened to be Las Vegas, the gambling capital of America. I was locked up in the training rooms of Dunedin for most of the year, with my only news coming by way of injured players.
The skinny was that one of the new Las Vegas coaches had a serious gambling problem, to the point that he had to borrow several thousands of dollars from the established veteran players. He ran up hefty gambling debts, not to casinos but to the players and coaches he bummed money off of to go gambling with. To my knowledge, none of them were ever paid back. Moreover, they were afraid to draw a hard line about outstanding debts for fear of it affecting their possible promotion.
Though gambling among players is ubiquitous, Las Vegas represents a specific pitfall for players—and coaches—who are tempted by the rush of betting. Organizations know it. Of course they do. If they know about pot abuse and are willing to stick high-ceiling talent on the 40-man roster to shield players who like to toke up too often, they certainly know about the players who habitually lose their hat at the table. When I was with the Jays in 2009, they wouldn't send certain prospects to Las Vegas in order to protect their own bet on that player's talent.
I'll admit, I myself was worried about playing in Las Vegas. I didn't have a problem with gambling; I had a problem with losing. When I'd go there as an opposing player with a visiting club, like back when I was with the Portland Beavers, most of my team would be out at the tables nearly every single night we were in town.
Unless the home team, the Las Vegas 51s, imploded, the odds of us visitors winning any of the following games decreased each night we were in town. It was not uncommon for some players to sleep less than eight hours on a four-game road trip. "Vegas baby, Vegas," they would say, massaging the dark, low-hanging circles under their eyes.
The following year I became a member of the 51s. Naturally I assumed that the results would be the same. However, to my surprise, after about two weeks of going out every night, wasting money, chasing thrills and getting drunk on comps, the urge wore off. That kind of gambling, at least for the vast majority of players, wasn't as fun or exciting.
Sure enough, the best games of chance once again became those posted on locker room walls, or ones made up among teammates spontaneously. You could win or lose a few bucks at the tables, sure, but we all discovered that it was the social currency you won or lost that made leveraging fun.
That's not to say there weren't players who did both, or that the stakes never got higher than bragging rights and meal money. In 2006, while I was with the Lake Elsinore Storm in Lake Elsinore, California, the High-A affiliate of the Padres, there was a pitcher on our team who considered himself a professional online poker player, as well as a professional baseball player.
In fact, he felt he was so good that he could retire—if pro ball didn't work out—and rely on the checks he was making online. He said he was making $30,000 a month—more than any of us made in two years of baseball wages at that level.
He would sit outside the pools of crappy minor league motels, plugged into three or four different poker games simultaneously, just playing the odds. Announcing every time he won.
"It's really not that hard, if you know statistics. I learned most of this reading a book on what to do in certain hands. I just play those hands and most of the time I win. It's because most people who play are stupid and just play because they want the rush."
Many of the players saw him winning, bought that book, tried to do what he was doing and went broke or, worse yet, never got paid their winnings since the accounts were offshore with virtually no accountability.
When I was in the big leagues for the first time in 2009, the amount of meal money given to me, and I mean actual cash in hand, made me feel like I hit the jackpot. In Triple-A, $120 translated to nearly $800 in the bigs. It was more than I'd made in two months of work in short-season Single-A baseball.
But this wasn't short-season ball. It was the big leagues, and many of the players who'd been there long enough for the culture shock to wear off took that cash money and went to the rear of the big league jet, where tables and chairs were set up and continuous games of poker were always in session. Some of the veteran players could play for hands in the thousands and not feel a thing.
I don't want to make it seem like I'd never gambled before. In 2005, I took my money to Pechanga, just south of Lake Elsinore in California. I did dollar bets on an automated roulette table. I took $70 of meal money and turned it into $300. Then, half an hour later, I lost it all and more—trying to earn what I'd made back—about $400 in total.
I had to eat peanut butter and jelly for the next 10 days because of it. That's when I decided gambling wasn't for me. Well, that's not exactly true. More precisely, that's when I decided that the only gamble I was interested in was the long odds of winning the lottery known as trying to make it to the big leagues.
Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also an accomplished author and has appeared on Baseball America, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more.