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Today, we have a cautionary tale of when running your mouth can go horribly wrong. It’s a crazy story of spitefulness, gambling, coincidence, and a would-be scandal that almost rocked professional baseball the way the 1919 Chicago Black Sox did.
This story revolves around Jeff Locke, a 26-year-old starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Locke grew up in Conway, a small New Hampshire town, where he played ball with a kid named Kris Barr.
From Sports Illustrated:
The boys met in grade school. For a time they were inseparable, Barr recalls. “Back in the day, there would be sleepovers every weekend, and we’d always be active, running around like kids do,” he says.
The boys played on opposing teams during the regular season but were teammates — and, former coach Peter Pelletier says, friends — on the postseason Mount Washington Valley All-Stars.
Locke went on to become a high school legend, going 34-2 with an absurd ERA of 0.49. He was drafted by the Braves in the second round of the 2006 draft.
Barr, on the other hand, stopped playing baseball and became deeply rooted in sports gambling at 17. He now runs a sports memorabilia shop, but he says the majority of the money he makes comes from selling tips on his website, VIPSportsInvestment.com.
Before the start of the 2011 season, Barr reached out to his childhood friend on Facebook and got no reply. This is where the spark ignited for this story.
Barr’s brother Don, who also knew Locke from youth baseball, messaged the pitcher as well. At first the Facebook exchanges were friendly, but then Locke’s tone changed. “He said, ‘All you want is to be my friend because I play for the Pirates,’ ” Don Barr says. “I said, ‘No — we were childhood friends.’ He never wrote me back.”
Locke’s rude message to his brother angered Kris Barr. It bothered him too, that Locke “never wrote back to me,” he says. He took it as an obvious put-down. The more he thought about it, the more it irked him.
From then on Barr carried a grudge against his former friend. “I said, if he ever makes it to the big leagues, I’m betting against him every time.”
After a stint back in triple-A, Locke was called back up to the majors in August 2012. Barr proceeded to wager against the Pirates whenever Locke pitched with no research involved, simply out of pure spite. Locke kept getting rocked, and Barr kept cashing in.
A regular season 2012 Pirates game didn’t gain much interest out of Barr’s degenerate gambling customers, so he decided to advertise it as a sure thing.
He advertised his picks by claiming that he and Locke were conspiring to fix the games. “I was telling everybody … ‘I just talked to him and he’s throwing this game,’ ” Barr says. For five games in a row, and usually against the odds, Barr had accurately predicted Locke’s starts. Barr repeated his story of fixing games to many people, including, he says, “a couple of big handicappers” on the East Coast. “They pretty much laughed at me,” Barr says. But after the third loss that he correctly predicted, one of the handicappers threatened to report him to the authorities.
Barr didn’t worry about getting into trouble for claiming to have fixed games. “My brother kept telling me, ‘Don’t be saying that stuff to people,’ ” he says. “I said, ‘Nobody will take me seriously, come on.’ ”
Turns out, people did take it seriously, and Barr was on the radar. Rick Burnham, a senior investigator for the MLB, took the case and worked it with the New York Police Department. They first investigated Locke, where they reviewed hours of game footage, trying to spot the pitcher deliberately taking velocity off his pitches and offering up meatballs for hitters in certain situations. Investigators couldn’t find anything conclusive.
Next, they moved to Barr. Investigators were able to easily track him down, even though he went by an alias, James Hunter, on sports gambling sites. After weeks of investigating, they decided it was time to make a move on Barr.
On the frosty morning of Feb. 21, 2013, Kris Barr became convinced he was being followed by “undercover” cars — late-model vehicles with heavily tinted windows, driven by men who looked like plainclothes police. Wherever he drove in Prescott Valley one of the cars would turn up in his rearview mirror. His concern deepened when he drove to work and found another car parked outside the office. Agitated, he drove away. When he got to a bowling alley on Second Street, he abruptly pulled into the lot, abandoned his car and walked home. By the time he got there, Barr had decided the police were after him. He called the county drug task force, which he had encountered during his conviction for a misdemeanor marijuana charge three years earlier. Barr says the officer assured him that nobody was following him. When Barr persisted, the officer told him to go to the hospital and “get psychiatric help.”
By that evening Barr was frantic. He asked for help retrieving his car: While Barr waited in a borrowed car, several members of his family piled into two vehicles and drove to the bowling alley. His sister, Savannah, then got behind the wheel of Kris’s car, with his girlfriend, Kendra Hagerty, and their seven-month-old baby as passengers. Barr’s mother followed in her car. His brother Don and a 12-year-old niece trailed in his own car.They drove a mile on a strip of two-lane asphalt through a semirural area west of town. Then, according to Barr’s family, all hell broke loose. As many as eight unmarked cars with lights flashing roared down the darkened road, forcing the convoy to pull over. Plainclothes officers jumped out. According to Savannah Barr, an officer with a drawn gun leaned into the car and declared, “Whoever is driving this car is going to jail!” Frightened and in tears, she got out of the car.
Savannah called her brother, and Barr agreed to drive to where his family had been stopped so he could confront the officers. Upon arrival, Rick Burnham told Barr to get into his car. Once the doors were shut, Burnham relentlessly grilled Barr about Locke and potential game-fixing.
We have proof you fixed baseball games, Barr remembers the investigators telling him before adding that they were going to convict him on a “ton of charges” and send him to prison for years. When Barr denied fixing games, he says Burnham “went crazy on me … cussing at me, telling me I needed to cooperate — he called me a liar so many times in that car.” Burnham is a muscular, grim-faced man, a former U.S. Marine sergeant. His booming voice filled the SUV.
The investigators advised Barr that “the best thing for me was just to admit it,” he says. Rattled and scared, Barr tried to explain his boyhood friendship with Locke, saying the story of fixing games was just “something stupid” that had begun with a slight on Facebook. He hadn’t talked to Locke since they were kids. Burnham, Barr says, yelled, “I know you’ve talked to Jeff Locke!”
The grilling went on until the investigators seemed to run out of questions. They sent Barr home, ordering him to wait for them the next morning in the parking lot of a Family Dollar store on state Route 69. If he didn’t show up, Barr says, they made it clear they would track him down and put him in jail.The next morning Barr met the investigators and climbed back into the SUV. This session was less intense. Barr says he was told to write a statement explaining the hoax. The investigators also wanted a list of his boyhood friends from New Hampshire and all the contacts in his cellphone. As the interview wrapped up, Barr says, the investigators made it clear they still thought he was lying. “There’s no way you predicted the outcomes of those games,” he recalls Burnham saying.
Over the next six weeks, Barr would receive dozens of visits and phones calls from investigators. Finally, to close the case, Barr was asked to take a polygraph test. Barr agreed to do so, as long as the MLB payed him $10,000 if the results came back true.
The test never happened, and Burnham and investigators never found evidence of contact between Barr and Locke.
He (Burnham) became convinced that Barr’s story of social media disrespect and revenge was true. Burnham closed the case, he says, with “no doubt in my mind.”
It’s absolutely insane that Barr’s lies led to his family being surrounded at gunpoint by 15 officers, but the MLB takes fixing games very seriously–just ask Pete Rose. This should be a lesson to everyone not to run your mouth, especially when it comes to sports gambling.
[via Sports Illustrated]
Image via Will Seberger