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Crisis in the KBO: What Is Going on With Korean Baseball?

Yoo Chang-sik (AP images)
Yoo Chang-sik (AP images)

When discussing recent scandals in the Korean Baseball Organization, the best place to start might be asking: Which one?

There’s the controversy from last week, when Samsung Lions pitcher An Ji-man was questioned by Korean police over charges that he funded an illegal gambling site. There’s last year’s probe into illegal gambling in Macau, which implicated An and several other current and former KBO stars — notably Hanshin Tigers relief pitcher Oh Seung-hwan, who has since become the closer for the St. Louis Cardinals (Western media outlets present his name as Seung-hwan Oh). There’s the ongoing blaze of the KT Wiz, who over the past two seasons have: punished a player for the contents of leaked messages that defamed a popular cheerleader and insulted league officials; seen another player booked for drunk driving; and watched a third player — 2009 league MVP Kim Sang-hyun — be arrested for “lewd behavior.”

But one KBO scandal is biggest of all: the recent spate of match-fixing allegations. On Monday, South Korean police announced that they have investigated Kia Tigers pitcher Yoo Chang-sik, who admitted to allowing walks at the behest of gambling brokers; an indictment is likely to follow. Last week, investigators indicted two other players — Lee Tae-yang, a pitcher with the NC Dinos, and Moon Woo-ram, an outfielder in the Futures League (a lower tier of Korean baseball) who is under contract with the Nexen Heroes — over match-fixing allegations of their own.

The spoils ran into the thousands: Upwards of 3 million South Korean won (approximately $2,640) to Yoo for allowing walks in the first innings of two games in 2014 while he was with the Hanwha Eagles, and 20 million won (approximately $17,600) to Lee for allowing walks and runs in two other games last year. According to police, Moon received 10 million won (approximately $8,800) in cash and gifts for assisting a gambling broker in reaching Lee. The Associated Press reports:

Gambling is heavily regulated in South Korea, to the point that placing bets abroad is prohibited; the country’s only licensed sports lottery, Sports Toto, caps bets at 1 million won (approximately $900). Yoo, Lee, and Moon engaged in a form of spot-fixing, wherein gamblers place illegal prop bets on minor outcomes — like walks in the first inning of a baseball game — and reap the rewards. And this isn’t the only recent incident of match-fixing in Korean baseball: In 2012, two pitchers from Seoul’s LG Twins, Park Hyun-joon and Kim Sung-hyun, received lifetime bans from the KBO and suspended jail terms for taking bribes in exchange for allowing walks.

This time around, though, the KBO has done something extreme: It’s offered amnesty. The league announced last Friday that players have until August 12 to confess to past episodes of match-fixing; if they do so before then, they’ll avoid lifetime bans. Yoo was the first to come clean under the program, though it appears that he may have informed the Tigers of only one of the two games he is accused of fixing. Lee and Moon, whose indictments came before the amnesty offer, will probably fare worse: The Dinos have already apologized for Lee’s actions and are attempting to terminate his contract; both he and Moon will likely face lifetime bans.

Baseball is wildly popular in Korea, where attendance this year is on pace to break records. A little more than halfway through the season, just under 5 million spectators have attended KBO games so far, compared to 7.36 million for all of last year. But there is concern that fans might soon tire of players’ misdeeds.

“If we all just shrug off these issues and assume fans will still keep coming, then we’ll never get better,” a KBO official told the Yonhap News Agency last week. “We have to take this opportunity to look at ourselves in the mirror. It’s obviously difficult to manage and control all the players, but these incidents should be a wake-up call for all of us.”

Getting better, however, might be a painful process: If Yoo is any indication, more match-fixing revelations are still to come.