It’s a good thing for Taiwan’s gangsters that baseball fans have a pretty loose interpretation of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. Otherwise, the flourishing illegal gambling syndicates that prey upon the island republic’s national pastime would have been dead in the water long ago.
In the run up to this month’s China Professional Baseball League’s opening day, Lu Wen-sheng, long-time manager of defending champions Uni-President Lions, admitted to prosecutors that he had passed on daily team information and strategy to southern-based mobsters.
That admission was just the latest in a long line of often bizarre match-fixing scandals to rock the league since pro-ball began here in 1989. Since then, authorities have unearthed five full blown match-rigging syndicates – four of them in the last seven years – and scores of “incidents” that read like the plot of a Hollywood mafia movie.
And for the players who chaffed at the idea of being bought off with money, cars, drugs or prostitutes, things got very ugly, very fast.
Mobsters have kidnapped, beat, pistol-whipped and stabbed scores of players and managers. Guns have been inserted in players’ mouths, bullets sent to their homes as warnings, and rumors abound about players being thrown off balconies or going missing after speaking with investigators. On one occasion, members of a team that failed to deliver a loss after being bribed were kidnapped from their Taichung hotel rooms, bundled into minivans and driven to a hideout, where they were repeatedly beaten until they “came round.”
In 1997, the entire China Eagles team was found to be taking money, and in 2008, a notorious mob boss, known as “The Windshield Wiper” because he could “make problems disappear,” bought a franchise with the apparent sole intention of throwing games for profit.
That trend continued in 2009, when a prominent politician from the ruling Kuomintang party was indicted and eventually sentenced to a lengthy prison term for running his own match-fixing ring.
“Gangsters have been heavily involved in baseball scandals since (former president) Lee Tung-hui’s era of ‘Black Gold’ politics in the 1990s. During that time, a lot of the mafia released from prison had strong ties to the KMT,” says Yu Jun-wei, whose book Playing in Isolation: a history of baseball in Taiwan deals with the murky confluence of Taiwanese gangsters, politicians and pro-ball on the island. “A number of these guys ended up running for office, which made perfect sense. What better way to protect your illegal interests?”
Critics have longed claimed that criminals have been able to leverage their political connections to prop up an illegal sports betting industry that is valued by some estimates at about $3.4 billion yearly.
“KMT politicians are too close to gangsters, particularly in the south. Everybody knows who these guys are and they should be investigated,” says Democratic Progressive Party spokesman Lin Chun-hsien. “The only way baseball can survive is if there are guarantees that match-fixing is finished for good. It’s a shame because we grew up with baseball. It’s a game we love.”