Features | Society | East Asia

Taiwan Baseball: Mobster Paradise?

As Taiwan’s baseball season gets into full swing, the taint of match-fixing, beatings and disappearing players hangs over the league.

By Cain Nunns for

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.”

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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.”

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou apparently agreed after his KMT colleague and 40 players were indicted in 2009.

Ma ordered a $31 million four-year plan to prop up the league and rebuild the sport from the ground up. Those efforts were supposed to buttress a Sports Lottery Act, which passed through parliament in 2007 and was meant to take the wind out of the gangster’s sails by offering a legal alternative to the underground sports books.

However, baseball insiders claim that the drafting of the act was yet another rigged outcome in order to ensure that the Taiwan Sports Lottery couldn’t compete with the black market.

Fubon Bank, the island’s second largest lender by assets and winner of the six-year bid to operate the lottery, says it has been losing money each year due to a “regulatory environment” that stifles competition.

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Among the bank’s chief complaints about the final passage of the act is a maximum 75 percent dividend cap on bet payouts. Illegal syndicates payout 90 to 110 percent on bets, increasing the odds for the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese who use their services.

The Sports Lottery also doesn’t allow for wagers to be placed online or via text messages. At present, all betting slips must be run through one of the 1,000-plus outlets dotting the island. Compounding Fubon’s problems are reports that a number of legal shop owners are also taking wagers for the syndicates.  

Pundits say that the gangs then place legal bets with the outlets in order to launder cash from their gambling and other illegal businesses, such as drugs and prostitution.

“We suspect this problem goes back a long way and is pretty deeply entwined with the fabric of Taiwanese culture,” says Chris Day, spokesman for the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association. “If you’ve got lawmakers, important politicians and Mafioso in the mix, then how can you clean this up? These guys are untouchable.  Why do you think nothing has changed in the past decade?”

But perhaps it’s Taiwanese baseball’s immediate future that baseball administrators should be most concerned about.

The Taiwan Sports Lottery Company, the Fubon subsidiary that runs the sports book, won the bid by offering to pay the government about $670 million over the course of the six-year contract. However, TSLC says that anticipated sales are down about 57 percent, and it’s now looking to either terminate the agreement or restructure it with substantially reduced payments. 

And that’s bad news for baseball, which was guaranteed a percentage of those funds. Baseball officials say the cash is needed to rebuild grassroots development of the game as fan confidence falls to new lows.

Ballpark attendance has plummeted by about 45 percent since 2004, and the league is finding it more difficult to retain and attract sponsors as each new lurid scandal is splashed across the sport’s pages.

“We want to solve these problems,” says an employee of the cabinet-level Sports Affairs Council, which oversees the lottery for the government. “But if we want to change payouts we will need a revision in the law. And that’s pretty hard to do.”

Cain Nunns is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian, Monocle and Global Post, among other publications.