Playing it strictly by the numbers

Lottery: Rest assured, says the Baltimore man who builds the machines full of whirling numbered balls: Nobody can "fix" the results.

April 29, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Michael Ruane is a boyish-looking 33, but he knows plenty of people around the country picture him as a crooked old schemer, cackling away in his secret workshop.

He is the man behind the contraptions that foil their dreams of striking it rich - night after night after night.

In a small Pulaski Highway shop, Ruane's company, Garron Lottery Products, makes the machines used in the on-air lottery drawings of about a dozen states - including Maryland, Texas, Florida and New York.

Ruane sympathizes with the many lottery players who are convinced that the machines are rigged against them.

But, flashing a most unconspiratorial smile, he wants them to know they have no reason to worry.

"There's absolutely no way to fix these machines," he says. "If there was, I wouldn't be able to sell them."

Ruane's clients agree. The reason Ruane has, in just three years, become one of the two main lottery machine suppliers in the country is that his machines, which cost about $25,000, are highly reliable, lottery officials say.

That's important, they say, in a business where thousands are watching closely each night for the slightest glitch - a pingpong ball that sticks against a chamber wall, a cylinder that takes a split-second too long to select a ball - to prove their suspicions right.

Like brain surgeons and sharpshooters, Ruane has very little room for error.

"It's critical not only because it's live television and you'll look silly if there's a breakdown, but also because of the impact that will have on the perceived integrity of the drawing and the lottery itself," said Jimmy White, spokesman for the Maryland Lottery, which will introduce a new game tomorrow using Garron machines. "They have to work flawlessly."

Ruane wasn't fully aware of these demands when he took over his retiring father's plastics company in 1998 and decided to focus the business solely on lottery machines, which seemed to him a "unique and hands-on" specialty.

The family sold the rest of the company, which made everything from museum display cases to precision parts for defense contractors, and Ruane moved into a smaller shop behind his dad's, just inside the city line.

At the time, a New Jersey-based company, Smartplay International, had a near-monopoly on the drawing machine market.

In short order, Ruane won contracts for some of the biggest lotteries in the country: Last year, Texas paid him about $100,000 for machines, state records show, and last fall, New York chose him to make the machines for two new games.

Lottery officials said their states have switched to Garron machines such as the four-chambered "Chesapeake" and the hexagonal "Titan" because of their competitive prices and their high quality.

Among the machines' features are acrylic walls that are thicker than Smartplay's, rounded corners that are welded instead of screwed together, and designs that allow viewers to follow balls through the selection process.

"What we insisted on was a clear view of the actual numbers as they were being drawn through the tubes," said Carolyn Hapeman, spokeswoman for the New York lottery.

"That's essential for helping our players see the randomness of the selection."

With such a limited market to fight over - only 38 states have lotteries, and the machines generally last years before they're replaced - relations are "icy" between the upstart Garron and Smartplay, Ruane said.

Some states still won't let him bid for their business.

"It's fairly cutthroat," said Ruane, a graduate of Fallston High School and the Maryland Institute, College of Art, who started working in his father's shop as a teen-ager.

He now has one full-time and two part-time employees, gets outside help from an electrician, and relies heavily on a large, computer-driven router.

To keep his clients, Ruane does the little things.

He buys the most expensive pingpong balls and weighs them to 100th of a gram to make sure they're all the same size. He carries out checkups on his machines to make sure the balls aren't sticking - "people don't realize how much static is in our lives" - and the blowers are blowing.

"At my house, I run the vacuum cleaner until it dies, but in this business, you can't wait for the blower mechanism to die - it has to work," said Don Gilmer, commissioner of the Michigan Lottery, which contracts with Garron.

For all the precautions, rare flubs do occur.

Last year, one of the tubes in Maryland's Pick-3 game took a second too long to pick a ball, so an official stepped in blindfolded to select manually.

In Virginia, an official once failed to latch the back of a machine properly before the game started.

And conspiracy theories continue to flourish, fueled partly by the memory of a scandal in the 1970s, when Pennsylvania officials injected some balls with latex to tilt the odds.

Lottery players call officials demanding they have a blind person work the machines, even though Ruane says it's impossible for an official to time the opening of a gate to pick a certain ball.

"There's a fringe group of people who aren't going to trust the lottery, no matter what you do," said Ed Scarborough, spokesman for the Virginia Lottery.

"We invite them to come down and watch the drawings and they say, `Sure, the day I come in and watch, you're going to do it right.'"

Ruane doesn't let himself worry too much about the masses who nightly obsess over his machines, tickets in hand. He points out quickly that lottery proceeds benefit good projects, such as schools and stadiums.

"I think the politically correct term is it's a `voluntary tax,'" he said. "I don't want to be classified in the same category as gun makers. I build a `random-number generator.'"

And once in a while, he even buys a lottery ticket - though most states he sells to won't let him play there, which he understands.

"How's that going to look?" he says. "I make the machines, I print the balls, and I win?"

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