Korean baseball: Could scandal unseat the country's most lucrative sport?
As Korea's eight baseball teams wind up spring training in the US and Japan, their sport is reeling under a bribery scandal that could threaten baseball’s ascent as the national pastime.
Seoul, South Korea
Professional baseball here is reeling under a bribery scandal that threatens to slow the game’s ascent as Korea's national pastime while the country's eight teams wind up spring training in the US and Japan.Skip to next paragraph
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Anyone can bet online on anything from the next batter to the next pitch. The problem is that gangsters see easy money in fixing bets by bribing athletes. Prosecutors, hoping to snuff out the latest scandal before it spreads beyond a small number of players and "brokers," indicted two pitchers last week but acknowledge defeating the problem won't be easy.
News of the scandals comes as a special shock to US major league veteran Jerry Royster, the only foreigner ever to manage a Korean team. “I never saw anything like that,” says Mr. Royster, who counts his stint as manager for the Lotte Giants from 2008 through 2010 as “one of my most memorable experiences in my 40 years in the game.”
Royster, taken on this season by Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine as his third-base coach, says “it’s great” that investigators could “get to the bottom of this horrible scandal.” He adds in an e-mail exchange in the middle of spring training in Florida: “ I am sure it never happened on my team.”
A major question, though, is how did bribery become part of Korean baseball – and other sports such as soccer and volleyball?
The answer, say investigators, is that gangsters, called "brokers," try to fix bets by getting through to players by Internet, phone, or e-mail to entice them into taking bribes. One of the indicted players had still-closer links: According to prosecutors, he shared an apartment with a broker who was indicted as a central figure in the racket.
Almost all Internet gambling on sports is illegal in Korea, but it's so simple to work around that officials have decided a "no mercy" policy is really the only way to deal with a wide range of suspects. Beside the two pitchers, prosecutors also indicted 16 professional volleyball players – a far less popular sport in which betting did not have the same visibility.
The fear among baseball insiders is that the scandal will cut into fan enthusiasm just as the sport is turning into a national mania. You Byun-sook of the Korea Baseball Organization, which makes and enforces the rules for South Korea's professional teams, worries that it "will have a negative effect" on consumer confidence – though, he adds, how negative “depends on how we deal with it, how we deal with individual players.”
Prosecutors say the two indicted pitchers, both with the LG Twins, owned by the sprawling LG conglomerate, accepted bribes for up to nearly $5,000 for issuing the first walk in a game.
LG has fired both players, one of whom was the team’s biggest winner last year, with 13 victories for a club that wound up near the bottom of the league. No one questioned his pitching prowess – especially since he racked up all those wins purportedly after having deliberately walked batters at the behest of the broker who took the bets.
The other player, the broker’s roommate, who won only four games in 2011, is accused of taking bribes with another team before the Twins acquired him.