Alexa

Time for the CPBL to face the music

Time for the CPBL to face the music

Nobody was terribly surprised when Taiwan's professional baseball league was rocked by another game-fixing scandal late last week. Five of the Chinatrust Whales' best players were implicated in the case, with captain Tseng Han-chou admitting that he took NT$2 million from underground gambling syndicates to throw games.
Tseng reportedly distributed NT$300,000 to four of his teammates - outfielder Chi Chun-lin, designated hitter Haung Kui-yu, first baseman Chen Chien-wei and one of the league's best shortstops, Cheng Chang-ming. Of the four, only Chi has admitted taking money while the other three players strenuously denied any involvement.
As a result, Tseng and Chi had their contracts terminated while the other three were suspended indefinitely by the Whales pending a judicial investigation.
Tseng reportedly identified Kuomintang Tainan County Council Speaker Wu Chien-pao as the ringleader of the syndicate behind the payoff, which was given to Tseng through a bookie with whom he had grown up.
There is no doubt that the predominant sources of these gambling scandals are underworld gambling syndicates who often have the backing of local politicians and power brokers. Desperate for certainty that their bets will be profitable, they try to make vulnerable players "offers that they can't refuse" to throw games. (There was some delicious irony in 2005 when the practice was said to be so prevalent that many insiders actually took a bath because competing syndicates had done a better job of getting "their" players to blow games.)
This, however, is the first time that an elected official has actually been cited as the mastermind behind gambling syndicates that were corrupting players. If evidence exists to back the allegations, we urge prosecutors to spare no effort in throwing the book at Wu, who has been nominated by the KMT as its candidate in a Tainan County district in January's legislative elections. With athletes and lower-level bookies usually the ones suffering public humiliation and judicial scrutiny in past cases, prosecutors must take this opportunity to show that the ringleaders are not immune from facing justice. So far, prosecutors suspect Wu of fraud and running a gambling operation, crimes that would carry maximum sentences of 5 and 4 1/2 years respectively.
Even if Wu is indicted and one day convicted, however, that won't stop the scourge of underground betting and the temptation to bribe players. expunging organized crime and dirty politicians in the near future is wishful thinking and requires time that the CPBL doesn't have.
Attendance and TV ratings have dropped precipitously since the last game-fixing scandal hit the CPBL in July 2005. Average league attendance fell from 3,418 that year to 2,264 in 2006 to reportedly below 1,000 this year. The shadow of the 2005 gambling scandal is not the only reason for the declining numbers - the sustained interest in Wang Chien-ming and his New York Yankees has clearly diverted the loyalty of some local baseball fans away from the league - but the CPBL will never regain its past prominence if it does not deal with this latest crisis urgently and with more than symbolic measures.
Macoto Cobras general manager "Smiling" George Chao advocated some strong medicine on Saturday, suggesting that the CPBL should be closed down for the rest of the year and possibly next year and have the government take over the league's operations.
Restoring integrity
Both of those ideas are non-starters and were rejected at a meeting yesterday held by CPBL Commissioner Chao Shou-po and high-ranking representatives from the six teams. Team owners were not likely to stop play and void the television contract that they depend on for income and they were almost certainly not going to hand over control of their league to a government that, in any case, has no business being a caretaker for professional sports in Taiwan.
There is no magic bullet that will solve the problem, but a combination of measures in addition to providing greater security inside and outside ballparks for the players, could at least restore some integrity to the game. The league could help itself by becoming a truly professional sports league.
The CPBL today is an alliance divided into six fiefdoms run by owners who have veto power over every move and treat their players like indentured servants, much as players in American sports were treated before the launch of players' unions in the late 1960s. CPBL players at present cannot become free agents, cannot negotiate long-term guaranteed contracts with rare exceptions, are rarely traded (and if they cause trouble by acting for a trade they are blackballed), and are usually destined to stay with their teams for life. So it's not surprising that players, even those who are well paid, could be receptive if the chance pops up to make extra money, especially when backed up by a threat.
Instituting free agency, where players can buy and sell their services on the market, would not only give them the hope of higher incomes if they performed well but also a greater stake in the league's sustained success.
While we are reluctant to support any kind of gambling in Taiwan, the time has also come to legalize gambling on the CPBL. It should be run by the government with the benefits going to the public sector and be accompanied by stiffer penalties for running underground betting parlors.
Gambling and organized crime are not leaving Taiwan's shores anytime soon, so the best alternative at present, and widely advocated privately by members of the league, fans and observers, is to at least make the betting transparent. Legalized gambling would not eliminate syndicates or gangsters but it would at least pull funds away from the underground parlors, help isolate problem areas more easily, and give fans and potential new owners confidence that real efforts are being made to deal with the problem.
The government will soon push a "sports lottery," that will be awarded to a private operator in September, which may include betting on the CPBL. Details of how it would work or what people can bet on have yet to be finalized, but the government must make sure that gamblers have honest odds to win - otherwise the lottery will be ignored, much as the regular public welfare lottery has lost ground to other underground lottery games.
Only if the CPBL becomes more professional in its approach and the government strengthens its law enforcement efforts and takes a more proactive attitude on legalized gambling can some credibility be restored to pro baseball's tarnished image. They need to act now.