By Allen Wolf
Each day that passes brings us closer to the start of spring. If you’re like me, this time of year is full of excitement and anticipation for one reason, the start of baseball season is nearly upon us.
In fact, as we speak Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) teams are scattered from Arizona to Japan at their spring training camps and Major League Baseball (MLB) players are due to report to theirs shortly.
While the relationship between the KBO and MLB is generally pleasant, it has recently turned sour due to a controversial amateur signing. To briefly summarize, pitcher Kim Seong-min, a 17-year-old high school sophomore from Daegu, was recently signed by the Baltimore Orioles of MLB.
When the news of the contract broke, the KBO immediately issued a statement condemning the contract and filed an official complaint with MLB stating that Baltimore didn’t follow protocol. The KBO and MLB have a player contract agreement, under which a major league team interested in a Korean amateur or professional player must conduct a “status check” with the KBO on the player’s availability.
According to the KBO, Baltimore did not ask about Kim’s status before signing him. In the days following the complaint, Kim was suspended indefinitely from playing or coaching organized baseball in Korea. Shortly after that, Dan Duquette, the Orioles’ executive vice president of baseball operations, issued a formal apology to the KBO “for the club’s unintentional breach of protocol.”
The saga has sparked a fierce debate among netizens and baseball fans across the globe. Many people here in Korea claim that MLB is taking advantage of foreign players who have not yet even graduated high school. Personally, I wouldn’t argue that Kim was taken advantage of since his contract is valued at over $500,000 (more money than the KBO’s MVP earned last year).
However, I can understand this sentiment to a certain degree. It seems that a double standard may exist given the fact that MLB teams are barred from signing pre-high school graduates from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico yet are free to pursue the same type of players from other nations. Thus, if the KBO demanded that MLB treat Korean pre-high school graduates in the same way that they do those from U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico (not sign them), I’d find that to be reasonable.
Unfortunately, the KBO has decided to push the envelope and take this one step too far. In an interview with the Yonhap News Agency, the head of baseball operations for the KBO, Jeong Geum-jo stated, “We’re seeking to revise the agreement so that only those who are playing or have played for pro teams can sign with MLB teams. That way, we can protect amateur players.”
He is essentially saying that MLB teams won’t be able to sign Korean players until they’ve first been drafted into the KBO. How in the world does that protect amateur players? Let’s call a spade a spade, this protects nobody other than the KBO, who is clearly alarmed that the nation’s top young players will leave for greener (as in the color of money) pastures. We’re talking about telling legal adults that they are not free to chase their dreams abroad simply because of the country they are from.
Although it’s disappointing that the KBO has taken this approach, it’s certainly not surprising given their track record of routinely abusing players’ rights. Because the league banned the players from forming a union, positive changes have been few and far between.
Some of the worst KBO policies include:
1. Players are not allowed to have agents. With all due respect to ballplayers, how can we expect a man with a high school education to sit down at a table with a group of trained businessmen and get a fair deal?
2. Once drafted out of high school, the player is under control by the team that drafted him for nine years! This doesn’t even include the two years of mandatory military service that Korean males must complete. This means that most players will not have a chance to earn a big payday through a free agent contract until they’re nearly 30 years old, making them the modern day equivalent of indentured servants.
3. KBO has ridiculously rigid free agent compensation rules that restrict player movement and thus hamper players’ ability to pit teams against one another in an attempt to increase a contract offer. For example, if a free agent wants to sign with a new team, that team must pay him at least twice his most recent salary while giving up one of their players or simply pay him 3 times his most recent salary. While that may sound like a good deal for players, it almost always benefits the teams.
Most players reach their prime from 28-32 years old, just about when they’ll be signing their first free agent contract which will typically last for two to five years. Fast forward to the players’ next contract ― chances are his play has declined. No new team would be foolish enough to pay an aging player up to three times the amount of his last contract, leaving him with no choice but to sign with his current team, who knows that they have all the leverage and can resign him on the cheap or simply let him go.
If the KBO gets their way, all Korean amateurs with a future in pro ball will be funneled into this one-sided system regardless of any opportunities they may have to play for an MLB club.
I’m a huge KBO fan. My memories at baseball stadiums across Korea having chi-maek (chicken and beer) while watching my beloved Lotte Giants are some of the fondest I’ve made during my time here. However, as I’ve learned more about how the league operates, I’ve gradually become disgusted to the point where I’m reluctant to even support it anymore.
The KBO resembles an insecure autocratic regime that is desperately clinging to misguided ways in an attempt to maintain the status quo. Let’s hope the guys running the show wake up and start moving in the right direction.
Allen Wolf is a lifelong baseball fan who has lived in Seoul for five years. He is co-president of a Korean food consulting firm. Reach him at email@example.com. The views expressed in the above article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.