Cash, cars and hookers? Another bad week for Taiwan baseball

TAIPEI, Taiwan —  Taiwan baseball took another hit this week as prosecutors charged 24 people Wednesday in connection with the pro-league's worst game-fixing scandal yet.

A probe was launched last October after the end of the Taiwan pro league's season.

Turns out the scope of the alleged corruption was far wider than fans feared. Those charged included three star players, a prominent local politician and five bookies, according to local press reports.

More than 40 other players were found to have colluded with gambling rings to fix games, and some of those may be charged after the Chinese New Year vacation, which runs through next week.

The lurid scandal involves allegations that gambling rings and crooked politicians used offers of cash, cars and prostitutes — and if all that failed, threats — to induce pro baseball players to throw games.

Baseball expert Yu Jun-wei said Taiwan's pro league would likely hobble on this year, despite the cloud of graft.

"They will still continue to operate the league, but I'm not really optimistic about attendance this year after what happened," said Yu, especially since one of those charged was the "Golden Warrior" Chen Chih-yuan, star outfielder for Taiwan's most popular team the Brother

Yu said he was surprised that so many teams and players were involved in the alleged corruption. And he was "shocked" at reports that gambling rings had recruited players to throw games while they were still in high school, years before they'd even made in into the pro

"They approached these kids through a coach at the high school, so when they got to the pro league, they could control those players," said Yu.

Prosecutors are seeking the heaviest punishment — nine years in jail and a $1.5 million fine — for a local politician allegedly involved in threatening players and betting on games. A Japanese manager was also charged, as was the "Windshield Wiper," the nickname for the head of an alleged gambling ring.

Prosecutors said the alleged game-throwing took place over four seasons (2006 through 2009) and local media even speculated that players on Taiwan's national team may have deliberately lost to China in the 2008 Olympics.

Meanwhile, the Taiwan media was also buzzing with the latest on pitcher Wang Chien-ming, dubbed "Taiwan's Glory."

He's been a national hero here since making it onto the New York Yankees' pitching roster, with dedicated fans staying up into the wee hours or skipping work to watch him pitch live, American time.

Wang fever hit a peak in the 2006 season, when he won 19 games and came in second (behind Johan Santana) in voting for the Cy Young award.

His star began to fade, though, after injuries and poor performance saw him dropped from the Yankees' roster of starting pitchers last year. He had shoulder surgery last July.

This week's good news: Wang, now a free agent, may be within days of signing as a starting pitcher for another Major League team.

The bad news: That team may well be the Washington Nationals — the worst team in American baseball. (They chalked up a league-worst record of 59 wins and 103 losses last year, the mirror image of the Yankees 103-59 performance.)

Baseball bloggers went nuts over the news (see a rumor roundup). Chico Harlan, writing in the Washington Post's Nationals Journal, got a hold of Wang's agent Alan Nero, who said Thursday there was no deal yet.

"Once again, I don't know where everybody is getting info," he said, asked whether an informal or verbal agreement was in place with the Nats. "There is no [deal], and won't be for another week or so." Nero said unequivocally that Wang is still open to offers from any club in baseball. "We haven't finalized anything with anybody," he told Harlan.

Taiwan media noted that the Nationals were the "worst" (zui cha) team in American pro baseball. But baseball expert (and fan) Yu said Taiwanese would likely change their loyalty to whatever team Wang played for, even if they were the Bad News Bears of the major leagues.

"I don't know if many people know about the Nationals," said Yu. "But I'm not disappointed. As long as he can start for a team, I think it will be good."