Baseball's high rollers continue gambling

March 24, 1991|By Bill Conlin | Bill Conlin,Knight-Ridder News Service

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Derby Lane is the Churchill Downs of U.S. dog tracks. And many of the high rollers who hold forth in the swank Derby Club during the peak of the winter-spring meeting are associated with major-league baseball.

Pete Rose cut his gambling teeth on the quinellas and trifectas there, boxing the 1-3-5-8, doing the $64 trifecta wheel 10 times, sitting there almost dispassionately while his picker made the selections and another go-fer, often Tommy Gioiosa, placed the bets and cashed the tickets. There was a lot more placing than cashing.

On any given night at Derby Lane, you can put together an All-Star team of baseball players. Nor would there be a dearth of managers, coaches, club officials, broadcasters and sportswriters.

All of this is very legal, of course. Legal, great fun and excellent food. I have sworn 75 times never to go again.

And if major-league baseball sincerely decries all aspects of gambling -- which I seriously doubt -- then Derby Lane, the Pinellas County Puppy Palace on Gandy Boulevard, has been blessed with a special dispensation.

I never have seen a baseball commissioner there, but I have seen league presidents belly up to the window to improve the breed.

All of that is legal, of course, regulated by the state of Florida. Just as legal as the lottery counters that thrive in every Winn-Dixie, Wawa, 7-Eleven and Kwik Stop in most states of the union.

And on most nights, win or lose, it is more fun than a barrel of flunkies. One of the most convivial and omnipresent of Derby Lane's baseball clientele has been Phillies president Bill Giles.

Beginning with his first spring training in 1969, when he came to Philadelphia from Houston to run the club's business operation under the Carpenter family, Giles has been a frequent Lane visitor. He also has been among the track's most prolific bettors.

I'm not going to give you a dollar figure on Giles' winnings and losings. I don't have one handy. Nor is it important. But Giles has unflinchingly lost substantial amounts of money and won equal sums with unbridled joy. No guest at his table has ever gone home having had less than a tremendous night of fun.

The amount is not relevent. As a man who has become wealthy in his own right, Giles does nothing illegal. If he passed on to the big free-agent draft in the sky tomorrow, the flag at Derby Lane would fly at half-staff. As well it should.

What is relevant, however, is the mounting suspicion that major-league baseball has become a comfort zone for people with a tendency to gamble excessively. And that men like Bill Giles, so comfortable in their gambling largess, have lost sight of the inherent perils that finally drove Pete Rose to ruin and disgrace.

It is a matter of record that Rose was a compulsive gambler while a member of the Phillies. Indeed, his gambling habits and known associations with bookmakers in Cincinnati were already well known to Giles when the Phillies signed him as a free agent in 1979.

Now, we have Lenny Dykstra . . .

I'm no psychologist. I don't have the foggiest idea if the Phillies center fielder is addicted to the rush that goes with the risk of losing a lot of money on the turn of a card, the roll of a putt or the spin on a backhand.

Worse, I'm one of those guys whose loss of approximately $300 during each of 24 spring trainings of Derby Lane visits left me in a disoriented funk of guilt that lasted weeks. I can't relate to the rapture of winning half a year's salary on one Pick-6 or losing a mortgage payment because a 72-pound brindle bitch gets rolled on the first turn by a cur dreaming of rabbit stew.

But I do know that Dykstra lost thousands of dollars in an illegal poker game near Jackson, Miss., when he was still a member of the New York Mets, playing for the relative peanuts of $400,000 a year.

I do know it came out in the trial of Herbert Kelso recently that Dykstra wanted to postdate checks paying off his gambling debt to the alleged operator of a high-stakes poker game until after last spring's lockout ended.

Meanwhile, Dykstra was playing tennis for money against Rich Ashburn, a substantially superior player who at one time had Lenny nearly $4,000 in the hole. No law against that, either, but are you starting to discern a trend? Cards, tennis, . . .

Hardly a high-stakes gambler himself, Ashburn manipulated the action, spotting Dykstra as many as three games a set in one match. By the end of the spring, Lenny had to fork over less than a thousand bucks. "I just wanted to play for the competition and exercise, but he kept insisting on betting," Ashburn said. "There's no way I could have lost until I started spotting him games, because he's just not the same level of player I am, despite our age difference. I've played pretty good tennis for almost 50 years and Lenny is basically a beginner."

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