The 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games (Sept. 23-Oct. 8) will kick off on time. It was originally scheduled to take place in 2022, but was postponed by a year due to COVID-19. The next Asian Games will be held three years later in 2026 in Japan.
Baseball will begin on Oct. 1, with group play and a super round for the top four teams in each group. South Korea is in Group B with Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong and is expected to advance to the Super Round along with Chinese Taipei. Since the Super Round is based on group performance, it is advantageous to finish first in the group. A win against Chinese Taipei on October 2 will put them closer to the title.
The Asian Games are more important than the WBC
South Korea won back-to-back gold medals from Guangzhou 2010 to Jakarta-Palembang 2018. They will try to win their fourth straight Asian Games title. It would be odd for South Korea to not win a gold medal in baseball, as Japan’s team is made up of players from independent and unemployed leagues, and Chinese Taipei is considered a step below South Korea in terms of quality (but lost to them in the group stage in 2018). This is why their bronze medal in Doha in 2006 was dubbed the “Doha Disaster”.
In fact, players value the Asian Games more than the World Baseball Classic (WBC), which brings together the world’s best baseball players. The reason is simple: military benefits. Winning a gold medal at the Asian Games eliminates the 18 months of military service. Instead, they only have to go through four weeks of basic military training. Current favorite Lee Jung-hoo (Kiwoom Heroes) will be eligible for the Major League Baseball posting system after the 2023 season because he won a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games.
Professional baseball players are grown men and should be in the military. They start thinking about when to enlist almost immediately after they put on a professional uniform. Although the enlistment period is much shorter than before, one year and six months is quite a long time for a professional athlete when you consider free agency (FA). It can mean the difference between a free agent contract and billions of dollars. With baseball all but eliminated from the Olympics, it’s hard not to want a gold medal at the Asian Games. There are no military benefits for the WBC.
The first time South Korea enacted a military service law that gave athletes who won prizes in international competitions special exemptions from military service was in 1973. It was a time when the name “Korea” was unfamiliar, and it was necessary to reward those who raised the country’s profile on the world stage. At the time, athletes who finished third (bronze) or higher at the Olympics, Asian Games, World Championships, Universiade, or Asian Championships, or who graduated from Korea Sports University in the top 10 percent of their class, were eligible for exemption from military service. This was a time when international medals were precious.
However, as the number of international medal winners increased, the number of eligible athletes gradually decreased. From 1990, only those who finished third or higher in the Olympics or first in the Asian Games were eligible for military service. During the 2002 Korea-Japan Soccer World Cup (reaching the quarterfinals) and the 2006 WBC (reaching the quarterfinals), national team players were swept up in the excitement and given military service benefits, but it was canceled the following year (2007) due to equity concerns.
The Bangkok Asian Games changed the game for professional athletes
Prior to the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, professional athletes were restricted from competing in the Olympics and Asian Games, and athletes had a variety of ways to avoid military service. In late 1991, Chung Min-tae, a promising pitcher for the Pacific Dolphins, was arrested after he was found to have bribed his way out of military service by obtaining a false medical certificate with a photo of his brother’s herniated disk. He was sentenced to eight months in prison and two years of probation, and was released from the Seoul Detention Center after 65 days.
At the Bangkok Games, Park Chan-ho, Seo Jae-eung, Kim Byung-hyun, Park Jae-hong, Lee Byung-kyu, Kim Dong-joo, and Shim Jae-hak received military service benefits. At the time, the entire national team was undocumented. In a way, Park Chan-ho’s reputation as the “Korean Express” and Kim Byung-hyun’s Major League Baseball World Series championship ring are thanks to the Bangkok gold medal. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics (bronze), Son Min-han, Park Jin-man, Jeong Soo-geun, and Jang Jang-ho received military service benefits.
However, not all athletes can be selected for the Asian Games or the Olympics. At the time, the only one who could continue playing baseball while serving in the military was Sang Sang (the National Police Agency Baseball Team was founded in 2006 and disbanded in 2019). This led to many illegal activities to avoid military service. Bribes were paid to military personnel, orthopedic surgeons, and military doctors.
The biggest military service scandal that shook the league to its core occurred in 2004. It involved 50 baseball players. They tried to evade military service for glomerulonephritis by submitting urine mixed with drugs and blood at a private clinic.
The list included players from all eight teams. The list includes players from all eight clubs, including Cho Sung-hwan, Lee Jin-young, Jeong Hyun-wook, Son Si-heon, and Shim Soo-chang. Among them, Cho Sung-hwan fled and went into hiding for six months to avoid the expiration of the statute of limitations (three years) before turning himself in when the statute of limitations was suspended. He was sentenced to eight months in prison and served his time, and was later retested and sentenced to public service. This is why there is no record of him in the league from 2005-2007. Shim was re-tested after his release from prison and was found to have offenses elsewhere. As a result, he didn’t have to try to artificially avoid the draft.
No league suspensions after 2018 headwinds
While some of the current KBO players have rebounded from military service with the National Police Agency baseball team, such as Choi Hyung-woo (KIA Tigers), and others, such as Chae Eun-sung (Hanwha Eagles), are from the active duty chairman’s college, there are quite a few players who have benefited from military service as a result of winning gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and three consecutive Asian Games. The team for the Hangzhou Asian Games was also composed mostly of non-military personnel.
The difference is that until the 2018 Games, the league was suspended during the Asian Games, so the main players were selected from the best members of the league and the reserves were filled with non-military players, but this time, there is no suspension of the league, so the team cannot be composed of the best players in the league. In 2018, the league’s rules were changed after some players who were about to enlist in the military faced strong backlash. As a result, there is no guarantee of a gold medal in Hangzhou.안전놀이터
Taiwan also has a number of players from the U.S. minor leagues on its roster, as the four-month mandatory military service (for those born between 1994 and 2004) is replaced by a 12-day training camp for Asian Games gold. When it comes to military service, neither Korea nor Taiwan can afford to be desperate. In Doha, the last time Korea missed out on a gold medal since professional athletes were allowed to compete in the Asian Games, it went to Taiwan. Park Se-woong and other members of the national team will have to enlist in the military if they don’t win gold. Will the dream of a ‘gold medal expedition’ come true?
Kim Yang-hee, Head of Sports, Culture Department, Hankyoreh, author of What is Baseball?
*Yanghee Kim’s life is baseball: A column by Kim Yang-hee, who has been covering baseball for a long time, reading life from baseball. Serialized every four weeks.