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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.

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“This is the first time we’ve had such a scandal in Korea,” says Michael Park, who handles liaison between the Korea Baseball Organization and major league baseball in the US.  “Probably it will hurt, but we hope the investigating will be over when the season begins.”

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The KBO has suspended both of them pending the final verdicts but realistically sees no chance of acquittals. Eventually they will almost certainly be banned  from playing professionally in Korea.

“I really want them to play,” says Mr. Park, “but for the benefit of the game, they have to be ineligible for life.”

Protecting the rise of baseball

The severity of the penalties reflects the need to protect the integrity of a sport that Royster, the former Lotte Giants manager, sees as rising rapidly in quality as well as popularity.

“Baseball is a big part of the Korean society and the international growth of the nation,” says Royster. “I am proud of the fact that I was the first foreign manager in Korea.  I will be a follower of KBO for the rest of my life.”

On the basis of his years with the Lotte Giants, owned by the same far-reaching empire that owns the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan’s Pacific League, Royster is “not surprised to see that baseball has taken over as the No. 1 sport in Korea.” The next step “is getting new stadiums,” he says, to replace the somewhat decrepit structures where most of the games are played.

No, “the teams in KBO don't measure up to pro teams in America” yet says Royster, who played 16 years in the major leagues, including 10 with the Atlanta Braves, and coached and managed for several years for the Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers. He estimates that play is on the same level as on double-A or single-A minor league affiliates of major league teams.

Still, he says, “Individually there are several players that could make an impact in [Major League Baseball].” Early training, he believes, is what counts.

“Youth baseball and high school baseball have contributed to the growth also,” he says. “Every kid wants to be Lee Dae-ho” – a reference to the Giants’ star hitter who signed to play this season with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan for approximately $10 million.

Hopes for baseball this season

The scandal surfaced after the Korean Baseball League enjoyed its best season last year, drawing 6,809,965 paying fans to 548 games. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the league is Korea's most lucrative sporting industry and still hopes attendance will top 7 million this season. By comparison, professional Korean soccer, the second-ranking team sport, drew 2,852,388 fans to 210 games, also a record.

Baseball industry insiders are hoping the scandal will subside by the time the teams return from spring training in the US and Japan and take to the field on opening day, April 6.

“A lot of people will forget very quickly,” says sports writer Cho Mu-hyun of the English-language Korea Times. “I don’t think the damage will be that much.”

He points out that match-fixing is a worldwide issue. Moreover, he says, despite a large-scale scandal last year in which some 50 professional soccer players were accused of match-fixing and banned “forever” by the Korea Football Association, "K-league soccer is more popular than ever.” 

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