In Taiwan, pro baseball is all mobbed up

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.

"Many politicians saw the popularity of baseball and wanted a stake," Yu said. "So they would just purchase players to fix the games."

According to leaks to Taiwan's media, prosecutors think this time around, players were motivated strictly by the carrot (payoffs), not the stick.

If the scandal causes any of Taiwan's four pro teams to fail, the pro league might have to disband, observers said. That would put baseball back on an amateur footing here, and mark the worst crisis yet for Taiwan's favorite sport.

"It's going to have a major impact," said Chris Day, a spokesman for the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association, about the scandal. "This thing hasn't stopped in more than a decade, and every time the allegations are worse and worse — players get kidnapped by mobsters, and it gets blown out in the media."

But Day said the island's dedicated baseball fans are "resilient," and usually come back to the stadiums after they forget about the most recent scandal.

Taiwan's love affair with baseball goes back more than a century. American do-gooders and colonizers brought baseball to Japan, South Korea and the Philippines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Japanese, in turn, brought the sport to Taiwan after colonizing the island in 1895.

Taiwan's baseball glory days are likely behind it now. The islands' Little Leaguers were world champions for most of the 1970s. The pro league exploded in popularity in the early 1990s with a distinctly Taiwanese twist.

Teams are named after their sponsoring corporations, not home cities as in the U.S., thus teams names such as the "La New Bears" (named after a shoe brand), and the now-defunct "Chinatrust Whales" (named for a bank).

The commercialization has at times gotten out of hand. Taiwan baseball expert Andrew Morris described how teams have dubbed their foreign players, mostly American and Dominican pitchers with Chinese names for an instant noodle brand, "Budweiser" (Baiwei), "Miller" beer (Meile), and for one darker-complexioned Dominican player, "Miller Dark" (Meilehei).  Some of the foreign players have been implicated in game-fixing, too.

Many Taiwanese have a typically pragmatic view of why so many players cheat: They're not paid enough. Salaries average $3,000 per month, but should be three times that, says Richard Lin, secretary-general of the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association. The pro league has no free-agent rights, another long-standing gripe from players.

But a lack of tough anti-gambling laws and enforcement is also to blame. The league says it is drafting guidelines on free agent rights, has been working with legislators to get tougher laws and had more protection this year for players by local law enforcement.

If the current allegations prove true, though, such steps may be too late to save the league.