MLB allegations against umpire Pat Hoberg bring unfathomable reality to baseball's forefront

Kansas City Royals v Houston Astros
Kansas City Royals v Houston Astros / Bob Levey/GettyImages

I will let ESPN and Bleacher Report notifications pile up in my phone's notification center all day while I am at work. Frankly, the internet connection is terrible, and loading any article is an undertaking all its own. But when I see both outlets and multiple others chime in on one topic, I know I need to pay heed. Instead of a trade rumor or new contract, I saw several outlets reporting the unthinkable: an MLB umpire disciplined for gambling.

MLB umpire Pat Hoberg, like many umpires, is far from a household name. Baseball fans tend to learn who is calling balls and strikes only if the zone isn't benefiting their team. Yet Hoberg made a name for himself by calling a perfect game in the 2022 World Series. That was the first flawless game behind the dish in more than 18,000 games tracked by Ump Scorecards. That was my introduction to the Iowa native, a moment that made me believe in umpires for a spell.

How ironic that his next headline did the exact opposite.

MLB levied their discipline against Hoberg on June 14, suspending the 37-year-old for violating the league's gambling rules.

“During this year's Spring Training, Major League Baseball commenced an investigation regarding a potential violation of MLB's sports betting policies by umpire Pat Hoberg,” MLB said in a statement. “Mr. Hoberg was removed from the field during the pendency of that investigation. While MLB's investigation did not find any evidence that games worked by Mr. Hoberg were compromised or manipulated in any way, MLB determined that discipline was warranted."

Hoberg quickly announced his response to the decision, protecting his personal and professional integrity.

"While that appeal is pending, it would not be appropriate to discuss the case," Hoberg said via his own statement. "That said, I have devoted my adult life to the profession of umpiring, and the integrity of baseball is of the utmost importance to me. I look forward to the appeal process, and I am grateful that the Major League Baseball Umpires Association is supporting me in the appeal.''

KC Royals fans haven't seen Pat Hoberg call a game their way since 2022.

Little official details are known beyond those two statements. Speculating about what Hoberg may or may not have done is futile and does nothing but violate their process. The court of baseball fandom will change their decision at the speed of social media. While I am not declaring Hoberg did or didn't deserve discipline, the thought of it should scare baseball fans.

The thought of a single man, behind the plate for every throw of any game, being immorally invested in its outcome is difficult to comprehend. Any devoted baseball consumer knows how a handful of balls called strikes, or vice versa, can swing a game. This is why sites and social media accounts, like Umpire Scorecard, are so popular. The quantification of what separates Nestor Ceia from CB Bucknor, or any umpire from the other, is valuable to an analytically minded baseball fan. But knowing the human element, so easily manipulated, could breach baseball even further is scary.

More information regarding Hoberg will come out in bursts, much like MLB is investigating Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani after his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara's, debacle. This Hoberg discipline does come less than two weeks after MLB banned San Diego Padres infielder Tucupita Marcano for life and four other players for a year. But this story and punishment regarding an umpire are uncharted territory.

But not for American sports in general.

Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy's high-profile gambling scandal is the biggest of its kind in recent history. The Pennsylvania native, who referred from 1994–2007, admitted to betting on games from 2003–2007. His transgressions ranged from passing on information about said games to outright rigging postseason games. Donaghy has served his time and still alleges NBA management called for referees to influence games one way or another, all in the name of ticket sales and revenue.

Donaghy's score holds weight relating to MLB because what says that isn't happening in baseball right now? We trust umpires and executives to uphold the integrity of baseball, but the opposite could be happening, and fans wouldn't know any different.

It is a scary thought.

The recent rash of gambling-related discipline all seems new because, well, it is. The Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibits sports gambling in 2018, opening the door to state-regulated sports gambling. Between legislation being passed and infrastructure being built, sports gambling is still becoming more and more popular by the day. I cannot watch a game on MLB.TV without seeing a Bet365 ad, being reminded that FanDuel is MLB's official sports betting partner, or hearing actor Jamie Foxx pitch MGM Sportsbook. You may very well be seeing betting ads on this same page as you read this.

The market is getting more and more saturated by the year, and that saturation is spilling over into how people view sports betting. But, professional sports make sure that spillage pours more money into their pockets. The idea that individuals, whether players, coaches, or officiators, would do the same seems more and more plausible with each state that legalizes sports betting.

This possibility, even minutely, is one reason the Automated Ball Strike (ABS) System is a necessary challenge system at the MLB level. ABS is a continuous experiment at the Triple-A level, but a shift away from full ABS to a challenge system, effective June 25, offers hope for a similar system at the MLB level. ESPN's Jesse Rogers broke the news on June 18, showing the league's bullish approach to this change.

When it comes to the ABS challenge system, the umpire is still in charge of calling balls and strikes. The caveat is that teams can challenge certain calls for balls or strikes that they think are wrong. It is important for teams to be smart about how they use their "incorrect" challenges because each game only gives them a certain number. If there is a challenge, the automated system is used to either back up the umpire's call or change it.

Baseball fans decry the possibility, citing tradition and how the human factor makes the sport more interesting and relatable. However, that same factor has a dark side, as Donaghy and Marcano personified. Hoberg's final judgment awaits, but an umpire being investigated for betting on a sport he has influence in should worry baseball fans everywhere. Umpires are not perfect on the field, and it is foolish to think they are so off the field as well. Why not bring another guardrail into the fold, dampening the impact any human error has on a game's result?

I would rather have notifications about MLB modernizing the game and protecting its future.

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