DETROIT — Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke wonders why a former childhood friend whom he hasn’t seen in years would tell people Locke threw games at the behest of sports bettors during the 2012 season.
“You could say it’s because I come from a small town with envious people,” Locke said. “No one else from there is doing what I do. There’s a lot of jealousy.”
According to a story by The Center for Investigative Reporting in the Aug. 18 issue of Sports Illustrated, a sports handicapper named Kris Barr sent text messages claiming Locke, a former two-time New Hampshire Union Leader Player of the Year at Kennett High in Conway, N.H., was intentionally throwing games during the 2012 season.
An MLB investigation into the game-fixing allegations cleared Locke of wrongdoing.
“Everything came back 100 percent clean,” Locke said.
Pirates spokesman Brian Warecki said the team was aware of the inquiry from the outset and cooperated fully with the league office.
After reading the SI story, which he called “gut-wrenching,” Locke spoke with reporters at Comerica Park before Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers.
“This stuff happens,” he said. “It’s extremely frustrating for me because I feel I have to defend myself for no reason.”
Barr, 27, of Prescott Valley, Ariz., and Locke, 26, were grade-school pals in Conway. They drifted apart in 1998 after Barr’s mother won the New Hampshire lottery and he moved to Arizona with his family.
Through his website, VIPSportsInvestment.com, Barr handicaps pro football, baseball and basketball games. According to SI, Barr, who also used the alias James Hunter, is alleged to have told at least one prospective client to bet against the Pirates when Locke pitched in 2012.
“My best friend is pitching today. His name is Jeff Locke. He will not have a good day,” said one text from Barr. Another text read: “Tell your biggest people that pirates game today is fixed. My friend will be throwing this game.”
The SI article said Barr carried a grudge after Locke turned down a friend request on Facebook.
MLB assigned senior investigator Rick Burnham to look into Barr’s texts. When Burnham confronted Barr on an Arizona highway in February 2013, according to SI, Barr said his texts were only “something stupid” and not an actual conspiracy.
“From the players’ association’s standpoint, it’s kind of scary that someone made accusations about something as toxic as this,” said Bob Lenaghan, assistant general counsel for the MLBPA. “My understanding is the investigation was pretty thorough by both law enforcement and MLB, and there was no evidence at all (of wrongdoing by Locke).”
In 2012, Locke pitched in eight games (six starts) for the Pirates and went 1-3 with a 5.50 ERA. Last season, he went 10-7 with a 3.52 ERA and was named to the National League All-Star team.
Locke was unaware of MLB’s probe until after it was complete. He learned about it during a phone call with Lenaghan early in the 2013 season.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal to me at the time,” Locke said. “Obviously, it turns into a much bigger deal when everything becomes public. But when I heard about it, I had just made the team and everything was going fine. It was never a distraction for me. I went out and made the All-Star team, so it wasn’t that hard to focus.”
Locke said MLB did not confiscate or examine his cell phone at any point. MLB spokesman Pat Courtney declined to comment on the methods used by investigators.
“We have policies regulating cell phone communication and other electronic communication to and from MLB clubhouses,” Courtney said via email.
Players are not allowed to use equipment such as cell phones, laptops and texting devices while on the bench, in the bullpen or on the playing field once batting practice has begun. They also cannot use those devices in the clubhouse within 30 minutes of the start of a game.
In a prepared statement released via email, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington supported Locke.
“MLB conducted a thorough investigation of the claims against Jeff Locke and concluded that Jeff had zero involvement and that he had done nothing wrong,” said Huntington, an Amherst, N.H., native. “Jeff has been and continues to be a consummate professional. Our belief in Jeff did not waver and remains strong. MLB long ago determined these claims were bogus and that this is a non-story. Our focus has been and remains on continuing to push toward the postseason.”