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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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Mr. Cho believes that Korean fans will be more interested in the performances of three or four Koreans who have played in the major leagues in the US and are joining Korean teams this year. “People will want to see Park Chan-ho,” he says, referring to the pitcher whom Americans knew as Chan Ho Park.

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Mr. Park signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers while still a college student here and posted 124 wins against 98 losses for 7 teams before retiring after 17 seasons. Now Mr. Park, in his late 30s, is joining the Hanwha Eagles this year in his Korean professional debut.

The popularity of baseball here is a national phenomenon. Anyone who’s been to a Korean baseball game can see the incredible enthusiasm fans hold for a sport that most Koreans knew very little about as recently as the 1970s. 

“All Koreans have a favorite team,” says Chung Sung-jin, a photographer and LG Twins fan. Mr. Chung goes to about 20 LG games a year in Seoul’s huge Chamsil Baseball Stadium, built for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and watches many more on television. “I am angry and sad about LG,” he says, not just because of the loss of two of its pitchers in the scandal. “Every year they have a low ranking,” he says. “They built up a good team for this year. We were expecting a good year.”

Endemic corruption

In the wake of the soccer scandal, some people believe a baseball scandal was almost inevitable: In Korea, corruption is endemic and payoffs are periodically reported just about everywhere – from university campuses to large corporations to political campaigns to the government and the armed forces. And all eight teams are owned by some of Korea's largest and best-known corporations.

Yoo Eui-dong, a researcher for the Korea Institute for Sports Science, says gamblers operate more than 1,000 illegal sites. “They are all illegal. It is very difficult to stop,” says Mr. Yoo, who earned a doctorate at Florida State University after doing a thesis on Korean baseball.

To be sure, as in the US, Koreans can legally bet on the outcome of games. The regulated Sports Toto, under the aegis of the government’s Korea Sports Promotion Foundation, promises to donate all earnings to a fund for developing sports at an amateur level, maintaining enough enthusiasm for some stars eventually to go professional. “You can only bet win or lose,” say Mr. Yoo.

Illegal gambling penetrated professional baseball here after South Korea won the gold medal in the Beijing 2008 Olympics, was runner-up in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and then won the gold medal in the 2010 Asian Games. Koreans went wild as their teams faced strong competition from Japan, where baseball is much more deeply entrenched.

One thing is sure, says Royster.  He'll be cheering for the Koreans.  “Between the players, coaches, front office personnel, and fans, I have been able to stay on top of the day-to-day happenings in KBO,” he says. “Along with being close to Bobby Valentine, managing in Korea has led directly to me becoming the third base coach for the Boston Red Sox.”

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