’Say it ain’t so,’ Korea
“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” The quote may be apocryphal, but it remains one of the best known lines in American sports history. A kid purportedly said it to Shoeless Joe Jackson as he was leaving a courtroom while on trial in Chicago during what was known as the Black Sox scandal.
Jackson, one of the best batters in baseball, was accused along with half a dozen other White Sox players of accepting bribes to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
Memories of the Black Sox come to mind as one reads about a couple of Korean pitchers accused of taking bribes. They’re under investigation in cases that are more sophisticated and complicated than throwing games. What pitcher, actually, wants to pitch so badly as to be sure of losing? In the Internet age, thousands of people can go online and bet instantly on the next batter, the next pitch, who will walk next.
A pitcher may figure he can afford to take a bribe for promising, say, to walk the second batter in the third inning ― and then throw hard the rest of the way to win the game anyway. Easy ― so easy, in fact, that most forms of Internet gambling on sports are illegal in Korea and the prosecutors expect to catch more players and gamblers in a broadening investigation.
The current sports scandal also evokes memories of a much more recent American case, that of Pete Rose, possibly the greatest player in baseball history, who admitted eventually to having bet on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, as a manager. He said that he only bet for, not against, the Reds, but he was thrown out of baseball in 1989 and may never be enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
That’s a mistake. You can’t get away from the fact that Rose set records for numbers of hits and at-bats. He was the ultimate hustler. When I met him in an exhibition series in Japan years ago, he was glad to chat while nervously playing “pepper” ― repeatedly hitting the ball lightly, quickly to someone else tossing it from a few feet away.
And when he wasn’t playing pepper and wasn’t on the field, he was jogging in place, doing exercises, a man in motion. Although the games in Japan had no meaning statistically, he played to win, diving head first into third base to stretch out a hit, running against the wall in left field. They didn’t call him “Charlie Hustle” for nothing. The Japanese loved him. He showed them the respect of playing his best against them as if every game, every play counted.
Rose might not, however, like the corollary to my view that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. That is, the words beneath his bronzed image should state that he was kicked out of baseball for gambling, that he broke the sternest rule in the game, a violation of trust almost as bad as Shoeless Joe deliberately losing the World Series by letting flyballs drift out of his reach or throwing to the wrong base or throwing short or wild. Shoeless Joe may have had some of the highest batting averages, but today he’s remembered for the Black Sox scandal, the kid saying, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
Other players who might otherwise be sure bets ― maybe not the best word in this context ― for the Hall of Fame should also be named and shamed beneath their images on the bronze plaques in Cooperstown. I’m thinking of those who were guilty of building up their muscles to home-run or pitching perfection by taking illegal drugs, some by injection, others by pills.
Barry Bonds would doubtless have hit hundreds of home runs but maybe not more than 700 had he not fallen for the conman who talked him into the wonders of whatever he was peddling. And no way would Roger Clemens, in the twilight of his career, have recorded all those wins and the league-lowest earned run average, for the Houston Astros after his great years with the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays if he hadn’t been on steroids. It would be preposterous not to have them and a few others with similar flawed histories in the Hall of Fame ― but with the nature of their notoriety fully explained beneath their images in bronze.
Whether we’re talking about betting, or taking weird drugs, or accepting bribes, Korean league officials, team owners and prosecutors have to get tough, fast, if they see something amiss. There are too many ways to fix bets these days to be able to offer forgiveness or second chances.
From nothing when the Korean Baseball League was founded 30 years ago, Korean pro baseball now draws more spectators each year than do soccer and basketball combined. Anyone who’s been to a baseball game here knows the incredible enthusiasm for a sport that most Koreans knew little about as recently as the 1970s. Internet gambling, and, far worse, taking bribes for walks and other stuff, betrays both fans and players.
Corruption in this society is endemic. The envelope, the payoff, is routine. It’s time now to wipe out the problem in baseball here before greed and stupidity ruin more players and finally the game when it’s getting to be a national phenomenon ― almost like K-pop or cell phones.
Columnist Donald Kirk (www.donaldkirk.com) is author of ``Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.