Baseball / MLB

Korean owners play hardball, expel players from professional league for organizing union

by Thomas ST. John

After a group of Korean professional baseball players from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) formally announced they had formed a player union last Friday, the KBO and team presidents held an emergency meeting the following morning in Seoul and expelled all union members from the league.

At the morning meeting, Deputy Secretary General Lee Sang Il read a short prepared statement which said that all 75 professional players who had joined the newly formed union were, effective immediately, unconditionally released from league service. He went on to say that the season will go ahead and open on schedule without the unionized players.

The move came as a bit of a surprise to players contacted immediately following the announcement at KBO headquarters. Within 15 minutes, one player contacted by the Korea Times expressed shock that he was suddenly out of a job this season.

“I cannot believe it,” said the player, who wished not to be named. “I will call teammates now and inform them of what has happened, but in my opinion, this will only make our thinking stronger,” he said.

During the press conference at the KBO, Lee Sang Kook, Secretary General of the league, said that if an expelled player was to renounce the union, he would be allowed back into the league and immediately reinstated, no questions asked.

The team presidents and KBO have come together very quickly and seem to be highly organized and full of resolve.

“We will not even entertain the idea of a union at this time,” said Lee Sang Hyun, manager of the KBO’s Operations Division. “We have no plan to ever negotiate with any kind of a player union at all,” he said.

He added that they were interested in dealing with the players and wanted to hear what they had to say as long as the players demands and/or concerns were not delivered via the union.

“The only way it is now possible to have any kind of a dialogue with the players is to have the players (of a certain team) bring up their concerns to their team captain. Then, if the team captain wants to discuss those concerns with us, that is acceptable. If they do not disband the union, there can be no dialogue,” said Lee.

The KBO, despite being well organized and having the full support of team presidents, is also facing a long and potentially damaging season in 2000.

Some of the 75 players who have joined the union are core players of the league; big names like Yang Jun Hyuk of the Haitai Tigers, You Ji Hyun, of the LG Twins, Chong Su Kun and Shim Jong Su of the Doosan Bears, and Song Jin Woo of the Hanwha Eagles, who was also elected as the union’s chairman. Song became the first player in KBO history to sign a lucrative multi-year contract after the onset of free agency late last year.

Without many of the league’s top players taking the field, the KBO is sure to see fan attendance levels drop to all-time lows.

Late in 1994, the OB Bears (the predecessors to the Doosan Bears) saw a mass walkout by nearly 20 players, including many starters. The team responded by putting in minor leaguers and second-string players, but rarely drew more than 300 fans per game. It was averaging more than 13,000 per game before the walkout.

The timing could not be worse for the league, which is coming off its first successful season in four years and was planning to make a surge forward to win back the fans they had lost over the years.

Samsung’s Lee Seung Yup, who had not officially joined the union as of Saturday, demolished the single season home run record by hitting 54 in a 132-game season. The Lotte Giants and Hanwha Eagles — two traditional underachievers in the league — met each other in the Korean Series. Hopes were high before the players first announced their plans to form the union less than a week ago.

Privately, an official at the KBO told the Korea Times that they will hold steadfast to their demand of disbanding the union and want to resolve things quickly. He added that if more players decide to join the union, the KBO will simply cancel the 2000 season all together.

By Saturday evening, no new information had been released and players contacted by the Korea Times did not return calls.

March start for CL

The Central League will kick off the regular season in March for the first time since 1964, league officials said Monday in announcing the official schedule for the 2000 season.

The Yomiuri Giants will host the Hiroshima Carp at Tokyo Dome on Friday, March 31, while the defending CL champion Chunichi Dragons take on the Yakult Swallows at Nagoya Dome in a pair of night games.

The Hanshin Tigers, meanwhile, will visit Yokohama Stadium to face the Yokohama BayStars Friday evening as the CL gets a one-day jump on the Pacific League schedule, which starts on April 1.

Suntory Cup 2000

Officials of Japanese pro baseball on Monday announced the schedule for the Suntory Cup 2000, a series of inter-league games between the Central League and Pacific League clubs near the end of their preseason exhibition schedules.

Each team in the Central League will take on every team in the Pacific League once and the team with the highest winning percentage after six games will be declared the winner.

The winning team will receive 10 million yen of the 34.6 million yen purse and the most valuable player of the series will take home 2 million yen.

The games, to be played March 11-26, will feature the designated hitter rule and will be limited to nine innings. Teams will be awarded a half game for a tie.

In the event that two or more teams have the same percentage after six games, the squads will be ranked according to a point system.

The series, which was won by the Yomiuri Giants last year, is being used by Japanese baseball officials as a test run for inter-league play.

The owners of the Pacific League clubs have lobbied for the introduction of inter-league play during the regular season in order to share of the popularity enjoyed by the CL.

Central League owners, however, have repeatedly shot down the proposal.