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Baseball's Greatest Scandals, #5: Bet On Taiwan

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Been a while since I've done one of these. I really didn't expect Arizona to be playing meaningful baseball in September, so expected to have a lot of dead air to fill. So guess it's a good thing! But as we hit the top half of the list, the focus changes somewhat, from single incidents to longer, ongoing abuses.

This would probably be top of the list of "Greatest Baseball Scandals You've Never Heard Of," But in terms of sheer impact on a professional baseball league, this certainly rivaled anything which happened during the 19th century here in the United States. For, following a series of betting scandals, attendance in Taiwan fell by over 80% and the number of teams in the Chinese Professional Baseball League - the main circuit there - dropped to only four. Over the course of 15 years, players were threatened, a manager stabbed, mobsters bought an entire team, and even the high school baseball championship came under a cloud. Follow the jump for all the gory details...

If you want evidence of the dubious effectiveness of prohibition of vices, you need look no further than Taiwan and gambling. Since 1935, their criminal code has made public gambling or providing a place for gamblers to assemble, an offense punishable by up to three years in prison. But that has simply driven both sides underground and outside of regulation. It's a huge industry, across the entire continent: one source estimated that the Asian gambling market in 2006 was worth $450 billion per year - that would make it four and a half times the size of the Asian pharmaceutical market.

It's the huge amount of money which changes hands, that has given the book-makers leverage on the players. The situation in Taiwan is not dissimilar to that of 19th-century players: they are under-paid [by major-league standards] and have few rights as far as free-agency goes. Even the country's top players are hardly rich. Chin-Feng Chen, the first Taiwanese to played in the majors, earns $300,000 a year in Taiwan - a third less than the major-league minimum, and he's near the very top of the salary pyramid. A more typical monthly salary is $5,000-12,000: given the millions of dollars at stake (as we'll see), it's not hard for the mob to make players an offer they can't refuse.

The main target has been the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which was founded in 1989. Much like the Japanese league, teams are owned and named after corporations rather than cities: hence, there are the Brother Elephants and catchily-named Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions. Those two franchise played each other in the league's first contest, on March 17, 1990, and have dominated the pro baseball landscape in Taiwan, winning the championship in 14 of the league's 21 years in operation. Of course, it helps they are the only two survivors of the inaugural teams....

The first cracks began to show in August 1996. Four players from the then champion Elephants were abducted and taken to a  hotel room by kidnappers from a betting syndicate that had lost $125,000 on an Elephants game. They believed the players had been bought off by a rival gang. Second baseman Wu Fu-lien was pistol-whipped, and the pitcher Chen Yi-hsin - nicknamed 'The Knife Thrower" (highly-ironic, given the circumstances) - had a pistol barrel shoved in his mouth. The incident opened the eyes of the nation, and it was no longer possible for authorities to turn the traditional blind eye to such things.

In September, the players involved were subpoenaed by the prosecutor's office, though all denied they had received money illegally. However, the following January, a trio of China Times Eagles players, Guo Jian-cheng, Ku Sheng-ki, and Chuo Kun-yuan, confessed under interrogation, triggering a domino effect for players both former and current. On May 22, the Taipei Prosecutors Office prosecuted Guo and 12 other players, both Taiwanese and foreign, for fraud, breach of faith, and gambling. The Eagles franchise was left so short of players as a result, it had to borrow them from other teams to fulfill its schedule, and it was formally dissolved on September 15.

The team were called the "Black Eagles" after it was revealed the entire team was available to be bought, for a fee of about $270,000 per game. That might seem like a lot, but it also came out that one gang lost $7.3 million betting on a single August 1996 contest. Given gambling on that scale, a mere quarter-million bucks seems like a solid bit of investment protection.  The prosecutions resulted in the convictions of 21 players, a coach and a dozen gangsters of various crimes, while a President Lions outfielder vanished without trace, after coming under investigation.

But 1997 also showed that no level of baseball was immune from the problem. The high school championship that year, saw five members of the team from Pingtung High School withdrawn during a game by their concerned parents.  The youngsters concerned were allegedly threatened by strangers - as with the Elephants, apparently bettors concerned about their "investments." The convictions did little to stem the underlying problem. On April 26, 1999, Weichuan Dragons manager, Hsu Sheng-ming, was stabbed four times in the legs by thugs, while dropping his daughter off at school. Two suspects were arrested, but Hsu, curiously, declined to press charges.

Fans, understandably, abandoned the league in droves, unsure if what they were watching had all the competitive integrity of a WWE pay-per-view. In October 1999, the two scheduled games in the CPBL drew a combined attendance of less than three hundred, and over the following winter, two more teams, the Mercuries Tigers and Weichuan Dragons, closed up shop, for financial reasons. The Dragons had won the title, less than five weeks previously. That reduced the CPBL to a mere four-team league, with many players also defecting to the alternative Taiwan Major League, founded in 1997. It lasted through the end of 2002, before being absorbed into the CPBL.

Attendance had, as noted, imploded, dropping to a total of around 300,000 in 2000, down from more than 1.6 million in 1995. The league recovered slowly, getting back just above a million in 2004 and 2005, but as the crowds came back, so did the scandals. In July 2005, government prosecutor Hsu Wei-Yueh opened an investigation after a local magazine published pictures showing Australian pitcher Brad Purcell of the Chinatrust Whales, hanging out in a bar with local gang members.  Though Purcell left the country, the investigation dead-ended, after the prosecutor himself was arrested as part of a bribery scandal. 

There was no such convenient escape in 2008. The Makoto Bank Cobras were bought by the D-Media System Co, and renamed the D-Media T-Rex. However, what D-Media board chairman Shih Chien-hsin supposedly "didn't know," was that his partner in the purchase, Lin Ping-wen, was a notorious local gangster and bookmaker. T-Rex coach Wu Chao-hui, "required his players to throw wild pitches, fumble and commit other fielding errors to lose the game narrowly," in accordance with Lin's demands. Three players were expelled as a result, and the team as a whole was also thrown out of the league soon afterward. 

But what was described as the CPBL's "worst game-fixing scandal yet" erupted in October 2009, following an error-strewn championship series between the Elephants and Lions. By February the following year, 24 people had been charged, including eight players and a book-maker catchily nicknamed "The Windshield Wiper."  40 other players were suspected of collusion, and those charged included Elephants star outfielder Chen Chih-yuan, and pitcher Chang Chih-chia, called "two of the most famous faces in Taiwan baseball."

The CPBL games covered took place between 2006-09, but also threw doubt on Taiwan's surprise loss to China at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. There, they blew a 7-3 lead by allowing China to score five times in the 12th inning. It was China's sole victory in the tournament, and they scored a total of only six runs in their other six games. Several indicted players, including Chang, had been part of that Olympics roster, and members of the gambling syndicate behind the fixes - which was led by a major local politician - had traveled to China for the event.

It's very difficult to see a way out of the morass long-term for the sport in Taiwan. The government did pass legislation in 2009 to legalize casinos on some off-shore islands, which might reduce the demand for the illegal version. However, none have yet been built. The basis problem is, gamblers will always be able to offer more to the players than the teams, and if bribery doesn't work, they've shown willingness to use intimidation instead. To sort it out, Taiwan needs someone like Kenesaw Mountain Landis to crack down - and given the situation,  probably the version from the Jonathan Coulton song, who "was seventeen feet tall, he had a hundred and fifty wives."