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Long Balls & Long Shots

For many longtime gamblers, the challenge of beating baseball is irresistible
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

Last year's World Series, the intensely hyped battle between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox, felt more like the Super Bowl than a baseball championship. At least it did if you were in the Mirage sports book in Las Vegas, which was packed with fans, screaming at the big-screen TVs, quaffing brews and betting like crazy.

A lone gambler stood in a corner of the room. But he wasn't screaming or drinking; he was simply staring at the screens in amazement as the last game wound down and it became increasingly clear that the Sox would become World Champions.

Months earlier, this professional gambler, who makes a fair bit of his income through sports betting, happened to be breezing through the sports book at a casino on the north end of the Strip. He looked up to notice that the Sox were posted as 50-to-1 long shots to win the World Series.

It was still early in the season, and the Sox were far from a sure thing. But there was one important element that made the bet alluring. "Everywhere else in town they were 25-to-1," says the gambler. "I immediately put $2,000 on Boston to win the Series. It's not as if I'm so smart about baseball, but this was just too good of an opportunity to pass up." Indeed, it made him $100,000 richer as the final inning of the fall classic wound down.

Historic World Series and 100-grand windfalls notwithstanding, however, in the great big universe of sports betting, baseball is a distinct underdog. It just doesn't generate the depth or breadth of enthusiasm and action that follows the endlessly moving point spreads of football and basketball. Baseball betting feels more cerebral, more mathematical, more of a dweebish challenge than either of the big two. With its seemingly endless season and countless statistics to track, it is best suited for serious bettors with the ability to focus. "You need to live, breathe and eat it for six months," says the single-monickered Fezzik, a professional gambler and guest host of the Vegas-based radio show You Can Bet On It. "You have to stay in the flow of the teams or else you get lost."

Because Fezzik sees opportunities in betting baseball, but can't really be bothered with the intricacies of tracking the sport, he keeps a couple of handicappers on his payroll, factors their picks, adds his own opinions and devotes his time to getting down wagers. Since baseball is most often built around a money line rather than a point spread—i.e. if you bet a favorite, you might have to put up $1.20 to win $1; the underdog would more or less be the opposite—it doesn't have some of the built-in excitement that comes with betting basketball and football (in which you give or take points). But it does offer selectively alluring opportunities.

Last year, for example, Fezzik noticed a proposition bet being offered at the beginning of the season: an over/under of 42 home runs for Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod had just been traded from the Texas Rangers to the New York Yankees, and Fezzik viewed the under as a no-brainer. "Yankee Stadium is a lot less favorable to him as a hitter," says Fezzik. "So every wiseguy bet him under, and he wound up hitting 36 homers." This year, Fezzik says, a hot bet will be the over/under on home runs for the league's top long-ball slugger. He figures it'll be posted at around 48. "But with nobody on the juice, I predict that number will not be made."

In more general terms, Fezzik offers a few broad tips for anyone who wants to make money betting baseball: "Playoff totals are always too high when the teams are competing in cold weather. The ball doesn't travel as far after the temperature dips down. Additionally, if the Yankees play an ugly team like Tampa Bay or Baltimore, the money will always go to the Yankees." And that presents an opportunity for middling: "You can make one bet early [on the Yankees] and one bet late [on the opposing team] when, at the last minute, all the square action goes to New York." Finally, he adds, if you want to get serious about baseball, focus on one particular ball club, learn all the nuances and subtleties, and make sure you don't fall in love with your chosen team. "If half your total number of bets are not on the other side, you're probably doing something wrong."

The beauty of following a single team is that it allows you to proceed with a fair bit of obsessiveness that should result in your seeing the numbers below the numbers. For instance, if a pitcher allows the bases to get loaded and a sharp grounder is hit to the shortstop who manages to orchestrate a double play, well, that's great, but it isn't exactly a vote of confidence for the pitcher—since that same shot to the shortstop could have easily resulted in a couple of runs scoring. Never mind that the pitcher's earned run average and numerically driven stats will make everything look duckier than it really is. Or, as Fezzik puts it, "Spot pitchers whose ERAs are not in line with the way they throw, and you can get yourself into great shape."

Fezzik's success in gambling on baseball comes from the emphasis he puts on betting—that is, finding the best prices, seeking out niches for prop bets, snagging opportunities to middle a game—rather than handicapping. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Michael Murray. A Kansas-based bettor and author of Betting Baseball, Murray has tricked out an Excel spreadsheet program for calculating baseball. "I'm better at predicting how pitchers will throw than the bookies are," brags Murray, who placed 1,000 over/under bets last season. "Instead of counting the number of runs, I take into account strikeouts and walks and home runs, and use that information to arrive at a sort of expected earned run average. Most bettors don't do it. So most bookies don't do it, either. If they go too far out of line, they'll get too much action on one side and not enough on the other."

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