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In Taiwan, pro baseball is all mobbed up

For some professional players, losing is an offer they can't refuse.

Supporters of the Brother Elephant Baseball Team cheer during the game against the Uni-President Lions Baseball Team in Tianmu Baseball Stadium in Taipei Apr. 4, 2009. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — At a sports bar here in late October, Stanley Fu, 25 and Zoe Chang, 23, were glued to the TV screen, watching their beloved Brother Elephants baseball team battle for the league title.

They may be enthusiastic fans, but their cynicism became clear after a few questions.

Taiwan's pro baseball league has long been plagued by game-fixing scandals, in which players have "thrown" games in collusion with gambling gangsters or crooked politicians.

Asked if they trusted that what they were watching on TV was for real, they both laughed nervously.

"The players don't make enough money, so they can make more by cheating," Fu said. "There are only four teams now (in the league) because of gambling. They all have problems — I think the Brother Elephants have a problem too."

Fu was more right than he knew. Less than a week later, prosecutors launched a probe into more game-fixing charges, involving current and former pro baseball players, including Elephants.

So far, eight players have been named as defendants, along with a bookie nicknamed the "Windshield Wiper" who was part of a gambling ring.

The Elephants lost the league title Oct. 25, in the seventh game of an error-riddled series against the Uni-President 7-11 Lions. Now the probe — launched a day later — has many here lamenting that Taiwan's "national sport" has become its "national shame."

"We've been hurt badly this time," said Richard Wang, a spokesman for the pro league.

Since the league's launch in 1990, there have been five game-fixing scandals. The first and most famous was the 1996 "Black Eagles" affair (the name was inspired by American baseball's own 1919 "Black Sox" game-fixing scandal), in which an entire team was found to have regularly thrown games for a $270,000-per-loss payout.

Typically, Taiwanese gangsters have intimidated players into throwing games, and punished those who haven't cooperated. In 1996, gangsters pistol-whipped one Elephant and stuck a gun in another's mouth because the team wasn't performing badly enough. One manager was stabbed and other players abducted the same year.

Yu Jun-wei, a historian of Taiwan baseball, said the island's corrupt political culture "spilled over into baseball" in the 1990s, after some gangsters won elected office.