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KBO rocked by latest gambling scandal

This image provided by the Korea Baseball Organization on Oct. 8, 2020, shows its emblem. (KBO)
This image provided by the Korea Baseball Organization on Oct. 8, 2020, shows its emblem. (KBO)
About two weeks before the start of spring training across the league, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) has been rocked by its latest gambling scandal.

The Doosan Bears on Tuesday asked the KBO to place two of their minor leaguers, pitcher Jeong Hyun-wook and catcher Kwon Ki-young, on the inactive list, for engaging in illegal betting activities.

Once placed there, they must be reinstated by the league commissioner before they can play again.

Though the latest incident involved little-known minor leaguers, their lack of star power is beside the point. The aftermath of the damaging match-fixing scandal from 2012 and from 2016 is still fresh on the minds of many in the league. Along the way, there have also been drunk driving accidents and sexual misconduct among KBO players.

The league scrambled to create Clean Baseball Center in 2017 and tasked it with educating players on pitfalls of match fixing, gambling, driving under the influence of alcohol, doping and sexual offenses.

Given the recent string of off-field incidents, it's doubtful that Clean Baseball Center has accomplished its goals so far. And the KBO could ill afford another potential PR disaster, coming off a season in which it earned high marks for completing a full schedule without a positive case during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bears recently learned that Jeong, 22, had run up a debt and found out he had been buying Sports Toto lottery tickets. Although Sports Toto is the only form of government-sanctioned sports betting in South Korea, the KBO still bans its players from purchasing Sports Toto tickets. It is also covered by the National Sport Promotion Act, which prohibits all active professional athletes from betting on sports.

The Bears then interviewed all the other players in their system about their personal financial situations and Kwon's illegal betting came up. Kwon, 21, had gambled on an illegal betting site, the Bears said.

Upon joining the league, all KBO players must sign pledges stating that they shall bear criminal responsibility if they violate league regulations and the National Sport Promotion Act covering illegal gambling.

On Wednesday, Kwon reported himself to police and said he would fully cooperate with their investigation. Kwon has yet to follow suit.

The scandal took a turn for the bizarre earlier Wednesday, when the Bears said Jeong accused a former teammate of extortion.

According to the Bears, the ex-teammate has already been released for reasons unrelated to the alleged incident and is currently serving in the military.

"Since we're still trying to verify some details, we can't identify that former player," a Bears official said. "We don't know if he had also gambled on sports, and it's difficult to confirm that because he's in the military. But we did include that allegation in the report we submitted to the KBO."

Under the league rule on gambling, the first-time violators will face a suspension of minimum 50 games, 120 hours of community service, and a fine of 5 million won ($4,560).

The second offense will result in a ban of 70 or more games, along with a 10 million won fine and 180 hours of community service. The third violation will lead to a lifetime ban.

A KBO official said the league will soon process the Bears' request to deactivate Jeong and Kwon but will wait until the conclusion of police investigations before launching disciplinary proceedings.

"Both players have acknowledged their wrongdoings, but there are other issues that need to be examined," the official said. "Both the league and the club recognize the gravity of this situation. It may be a while before we can open our disciplinary proceedings, but in the meantime, we'll continue to think of ways to prevent recurrence of similar cases."

For what it's worth, new KBO Commissioner Chung Ji-taik has vowed to come down hard on any player or team that violates league rule.

"The KBO and its 10 clubs strive to practice good sportsmanship with a high sense of morality," Chung said during his inauguration ceremony on Jan. 5. "But problems do emerge from time to time. It is of utmost importance to never allow those instances to go unpunished. I will be as strict as the KBO rules allow." (Yonhap)