Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
01 Oct 2009
by Mike Tanier
Delaware: the anything-for-a-buck state.
Delaware is a flat, featureless trio of counties shrugged off by Pennsylvania in the colonial era, a sprawling expanse of bedroom communities, choked highways, and endless tax-free shopping complexes. I've always thought of Delaware as an existential hell customized for torturing ironic intellectuals like myself, a place where citizens gleefully trade geographic inconvenience and cultural desolation for cheap cigarettes.
I rarely travel willingly to Delaware and I drive through the state as quickly as possible, which isn't very fast because traffic is dense and toll plazas are ubiquitous. I would pay real money for a Delaware bypass: an enormous bridge that starts in Pennsville, New Jersey, and doesn't touch the ground again until Elkton, Maryland. I would surrender a couple of paychecks to help fund that sucker. I know my attitude is uncharitable and immature, a product if my own hang-ups more than the merits of the state itself, but I have an illogical, passionate dislike of Delaware.
But on Sunday, I drove to Delaware to spend my precious recreation time, not to mention my money. I headed to The First State (in chronology if not my heart) to place my first-ever legal football bet.
I've placed bets with bookies before. Like everyone else, I know a guy who knows a guy. After a decade of writing, I have actually gotten to know the second guy and the guy he knows who we don't talk about. I don't bet often -- high-profile weekly picks are enough of a gamble for me -- and I don't like the idea that my wagers are used to subsidize other illegal operations. I have been to Vegas, but only during the doldrums of baseball season: my jobs don't make autumn weekend getaways feasible. I live one hour from Atlantic City, a gambling Mecca that also provides socially acceptable amenities like a beach, but sports wagering is illegal in Atlantic City for reasons logical only to angry Puritans and 1970s politicians/mob bosses.
So Sunday marked a first: a chance to bet in a sportsbook and revel in the casino experience, NFL-style. Delaware just legalized sports gambling, and Delaware Park, a 40 minute drive from my home, advertises itself as a full-service guy-stuff resort: all the Sunday games, golf, horses, drink specials, and so on. It was the perfect opportunity to drink, dine, and drop money to excess. I may not be cool enough for Vegas, but I'm cool enough by half to cut it in Wilmington. Maybe a day of debauchery would change my opinion of a state which, after all, has done nothing to me except siphon toll money from my pocket.
What did I have to lose, besides money?
I drove to Delaware in a dreary rain, armed with my laptop, a notebook, the Football Outsiders Premium picks, and several hundred dollars in cash. "Paul Revere" by the Beastie Boys thumped on the radio. I felt good, ready for a little deviltry; I rarely get a whole day to do guy stuff. I usually watch the early games while taking notes and nursing beers at the local sports bar, then catch the late games on tape or between Nickelodeon marathons with the kids. This Sunday was mine: My wife gave me carte blanche to drink and gamble, and to rent a hotel room if I did too much of one and still had money left over from the other.
I left I-95, following signs along a short tangle of state highways, until I found Delaware Park. A long service road took me through the golf course to a wide parking area with shuttle buses. I parked with the grandstand and casino looming on the horizon. The shuttle was nowhere to be found, so I hiked through the rain, past men on cell phones reviewing their picks and old women with cigarettes on their way to the slots. Guys wore jerseys -- Eli Manning and Joe Flacco were the most popular, but Matt Forte and Zack Thomas were also represented -- and some cars were decorated with Eagles flags or Dolphins stickers. Cars were stacked three-deep for valet parking, some of them Kias. Security politely searched my laptop bag and directed me to the sportsbook: way, way back at the far end of the casino, through several identical rooms of slots and video poker machines.
At the sportsbook, I met my partner in crime, Brian Fish: attorney, mixologist, gourmand, and Bills fan. Brian came wearing his trademark fedora, with a couple of Cohiba Maduro cigars in his pocket, bringing a little Vegas to the experience. We ordered Bloody Marys in plastic cups. They were just spicy and strong enough to shake off the damp cold of the parking lot.
Brian had already cased the joint, and he had bad news: The horses weren't running. Park officials had recently altered the race schedule, moving races from Sunday to midweek, presumably because football gambling was enough of a Sunday draw. Brian and I planned to bet a few horses during lulls in the football, but we could only do that on out-of-town races. That's too much like degenerate gambler behavior, even for us.
We studied the parlay cards that were stacked in displays near the entrance to the sportsbook. In Delaware, you aren't allowed to bet single games. Instead, you bet parlay cards, choosing a minimum of three games. The Half-Point Parlay cards are based on the true Vegas lines for the game, although some are moved a half point to avoid pushes. The Teaser Cards have modified lines for favorites and underdogs; for the Ravens game, I could take the Ravens minus-8.5 or get the Browns plus-20.5 instead of the regular 12.5 point line. The catch, of course, is that payoffs aren't as good on the Teaser Cards: a three-game winner pays at 13-to-5 as opposed to 5-to-1 for a half-point parlay. There's also a Super Teaser card, which lowers the payoffs further but warps the spreads past the point of logic: the Chiefs +27, while it seemed like a safe play, was just too much to wrap my brain around.
Brian and I puzzled over the Teaser Cards. We both liked the Ravens (minus-8.5) and the Lions (+ 13.5), but we disagreed over the third choice. Brian liked the Eagles (minus-4.5), but I had my doubts about a team with Kevin Kolb at quarterback and an injured Brian Westbrook. I toyed with the Giants (-1.5), who looked like a lock, but I didn't want to root for the Giants. Instead, I took the plucky Rams +13.5, for 50 bucks.
There was no line to process the bets, and with 45 minutes until kickoff, it was time for lunch. The bar at the sportsbook offered only pizza slices (regular and pepperoni) and hot dogs in aluminum foil. We asked the barmaid where we could find real food, and she took offense. After some searching, we found a restaurant called the Beefstro, but it wasn't open. The barmaid outside the Beefstro was even less helpful and polite than the one at the sportsbook. She wasn't sure if the Beefstro was open on Sundays, or which, if any, of the casino eateries would be open, or if there was any food at all available in New Castle County. She didn't want to take time from her glass-rinsing schedule to help us. After an even longer search and a few conversations with employees of varying helpfulness, we found a counter serving deli fare.
Brian ordered a panini, and we ordered Yuengling black-and-tan bottles from the adjacent bar for a whopping $5.50 each. The barmaid asked us where we were from. She wondered why guys would come from as far away as Philly and Baltimore to gamble in Wilmington. "You're from Philly. Don't you know a bookie?" she asked. I assured her I did, but that I came to check out the scene. She rolled her eyes, saying that there wouldn't be much of a scene with the Eagles and Ravens playing at home. I mentioned that many of my friends were at the Eagles game, and she said that it was crazy to go to a football game "with the world the way it is these days. Somebody could blow the stadium up." Brian and I quickly finished our beers to escape this cranky lunatic barmaid.
We returned to the sportsbook a few minutes before kickoff. Fans sat at large, round banquet tables, each of which could seat about eight comfortably but only held two or three fans. There are two rooms with about 40 tables in each room, making the book look more like two large wedding halls. Each room contained a huge wall of projection screens, with each wall showing six games. Hand-written signs taped to the screens labeled which game was showing. When early kickoffs arrived, fans sitting near the wall deputized themselves to peel the signs off the wall. They received scattered applause.
We wanted drinks. We searched for the waitress (singular). With two rooms, about 80 tables, and maybe 250 people in attendance, Delaware Park decided to schedule only one waitress. She was lovely and efficient, but very alone. I tried my luck at the bar, but the barmaid was also working alone, and the line was about 20 deep. There was a long line to place bets as well, and some people weren't going to get their cards in before kickoff. After giving the waitress the kind of tip that guarantees extra flybys and procuring two more Bloody Marys, Brian pointed out a bank of about a dozen automatic bet-processing machines. All of them were out of service. For some reason, Delaware Park didn't want our money.
The early games started, the Bloody Marys hit my system, and I forgot about inconvenient food and certifiably insane barmaids. The Eagles and Ravens looked good right away, and their opponents looked dreadful. The Lions and Redskins traded incompetence. The Rams played poorly, but the Packers kept settling for field goals, and I had over thirteen points of wiggle room. I tried to watch the Jets defense -- I pitched an article to ESPN about their blitzes, but don't have any game tape -- but the Titans never had the ball, so I watched Mark Sanchez play beyond his years. As teams scored, fans clapped and cheered, but the overall atmosphere was subdued. The wide tables and long distances kept people from interacting, taking away the intensity you get at a crowded sports pub.
By the end of the first quarter, Brian and I were thirsty. Our lone waitress was officially overtaxed, so I tried the bar again. The line was short but didn't move. The bar taps were broken. The barmaid had to handle the line -- plus a row of seated patrons -- and her patience, strained at noon, had snapped. I made small talk with others waiting in line, then long talk. We discussed the merits of buying beers then going to the back of the line to start over. When I reached the front, my plan to bring 12 beers back to the table was thwarted by a two-drink maximum. The $2 Budweiser special had little appeal when I first arrived, but I wanted quick drinks that wouldn't make the barmaid sneer or the folks in line me strangle me. I bought two of the drink that got me through 11th grade. When I returned to the table, Brian had also secured beers and even more tip-related loyalty from our poor waitress.
As the afternoon rolled on, the Ravens and Eagles pulled away. I began to root for the hapless Rams. Their first three drives ended in a blocked field goal and two fumbles. Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson were the fumblers, but they were also the only Rams players who looked like they belonged on the field. The Packers scored in their first five possessions, twice on 80-plus-yard drives that took less than three minutes of game time and even less real time. Kyle Boller replaced Bulger, and I thought about tearing my betting slip into a billion pieces. But Boller started scrambling for first downs, and he threw two touchdown passes to someone named Daniel Fells who probably hasn't scored two touchdowns since Pop Warner. The Rams were down by just six in the third quarter, which means I was up by seven-and-a-half.
Drinks started to arrive more freely. A hostess from another part of the casino arrived to help the lone waitress, while a manager assisted the beleaguered barmaid. Two young ladies serving drinks gave us twice the scenery; as you might imagine, the clientele at the sportsbook was about 80 percent male, 15 percent girlfriend/wife, and five percent child. Yes, there were children bouncing around, running between tables while their parents neglected them. I often see kids at the local sports pub, but that's a neighborhood restaurant, not a casino that specializes in mild adult vices. Brian and I were about to share a neanderthal comment about a cheerleader when an eight-year old girl skipped past, stopping us in our prurient tracks. This sort of thing does not happen in Vegas.
Gambling has a peculiar effect on the psyche. The Jets-Titans game was close, the screen showing it was in full view, and I had a financial stake in the game: an article for ESPN could net me much more cash than a win on a three-team parlay. My bet made me watch the Rams. The Packers led by 12 in the fourth quarter, but a Rams punt pinned them at the six-yard line, and they punted after a slow drive. I felt good: The Packers would play dump-and-chase with their 12-point lead, and with the Redskins hibernating and the Browns searching greater Cleveland for quarterbacks, I would be $130 richer. But Boller threw an ugly interception deep in Rams territory, and the Packers scored easily. My hopes now rested with a meaningless late Rams touchdown drive, the kind Boller had never figured out how to execute.
Brian was in better spirits: the Lions salted away their first Recession-era victory, so he won his parlay. We were both tipsy and hungry, so we decided to place our late bets before going on an epic quest for more food. I took the Bills (+13.5), Steelers (+2.5) and Raiders (+6.5) on another teaser card. While a lifelong Bills fan, Brian has no faith in Dick Jauron, so he took the Saints (minus-1.5), Bears (+4.5) and Steelers.
Our dinner choices were limited. There's a prime rib establishment called Del Caps at Delaware Park, but we were told that the football games weren't on in the dining room. We settled for a cafeteria-style meal from a deli called On a Roll. We ordered Italian hoagies and chicken salad sandwiches, then crossed the casino floor to a service bar that was showing Steelers-Bengals on a small HDTV. We ate, drank gin and tonic (the well gin is poison, but Tanqueray is available), and dropped a few bucks in a video poker machine. Brian wanted to smoke his stogie, so we went out to the grandstand. The sun was out, the weather cool, and the racetrack empty. Earlier in the day, the Eagles game played on the jumbo racetrack screen, but that screen was blank now. We listened to Steelers play-by-play, checked our messages, and compared our thoughts on the Delaware gambling experience.
Delaware doesn't capture the Vegas zeitgeist, but no one expects it to. The problem is that Delaware fails to even capture the suburban sports pub experience. My local bar offers better drinks, cheaper drinks, easier-to-get drinks, a greater variety of good, cheap, easy-to-get drinks, better food, easier-to-get food, and cuter, more plentiful waitresses, plus a livelier atmosphere. I can also gamble to my hearts content if I don't mind breaking a barely-enforced law. "To work, it's got to be better than the bookie," Brian said. It isn't.
I don't think the racetrack people know what football gamblers want. We want buffalo wings, nachos, and sliders. We want convenience. We want the suspension of reality that comes from plentiful booze, spicy food, free-flowing cash, and under-dressed waitresses at our beck and call. Once you wait a half hour for a drink or walk a quarter mile for a sandwich, the fantasy disappears: you aren't a sultan who can light cigars with $50 bills, you are a guy on a budget on a momentary reprieve from domestic life, a guy who has to lug his own sandwich to the table and can't have the premium drafts because the tap is broken. This reality check takes away all of the fun.
We returned to the sportsbook and had a few more beers, but now the drinks went down harder, as did the games. Brian cashed his winning slip without hassle, and his afternoon games offered hope for a sweep. I had little hope. The Raiders offense was unwatchable, three ill-conceived plays followed by Shane Lechler punts which were almost long enough to keep the game close. By halftime, it was clear they had no comeback in them.
The Eagles, Giants, and Ravens crowds were long gone. Evening fell, and the only light in the sportsbook came from the televisions. About 50 of us were left, hardcore fans and gamblers waiting on the late games. Most of the action was on Steelers-Bengals, and we watched the Bengals comeback with interest. Occasionally, I chanted "Let's go Raiders," eliciting a mix of laughs and sympathy.
The Bengals drove to the red zone. The Bears also mounted a comeback against the Seahawks. Our small battalion of fans became boisterous. One guy began to shout "Throw it to Ocho!" Others drummed the table and shouted when Carson Palmer completed a fourth-and-10 pass. When the Bengals took the lead, some groaned, others jumped and clapped. The same thing happened when Devin Hester scored a late touchdown against the Seahawks. For a few minutes, the sportsbook felt like it should: exciting and energetic, a place where fortunes were at stake. It was so little, and so late. My buzz had grown stale, my betting slip worthless. Brian and I had carte blanche. In Vegas, we would just be warming up. We decided to sober up and head home to our families. Most of the crowd did the same.
Delaware Park is just what I thought it would be, only worse. I expected the joyless casino floors, filled with lonely senior citizens dropping quarters into slot machines. I expected overpriced drinks and a measure of surliness from the staff. But I also expected a damn buffalo wing, or a horse race, or a waitress with a fighting chance of serving her clientèle. Football gambling is new to Delaware, but the whole casino seemed caught off guard, as if no one expected thirsty football fans on a Sunday afternoon. The whole affair was inconvenient, mismanaged, planned on a whim and financed on a dime. In short, it was uniquely Delaware.
(Note: The anti-Delaware opinions expressed by Mike Tanier are completely his own and do not reflect the editorial opinion of the rest of the Football Outsiders, who think Delaware is no better or worse than any other state and don't want to have to sort through Tanier's hate mail.)
62 comments, Last at 10 Feb 2010, 5:01pm by dryheat