Violence in the dugout

Corporal punishment is so embedded in Korean sports it will be a while before it fades from the playing field.

Sept 17,2009
A basketball team manager is caught in the act of slapping a member of his team.[JoongAng Ilbo]
It’s become one of the most popular sports in Korea, but there is a dark side to professional baseball in this country. Although the game has not had a long history here, the sport has been plagued by chronic violence within its ranks for decades.

Just one month after Korea’s professional baseball league got its start in March 1982, Kim Dong-yeop, the head coach of the Haitai Tigers, was fired for using violence against his players. Kim had already earned a reputation for having a hot temper and quick fists.

His downfall came one early April morning that year when two assistant coaches under Kim quit, saying they were fed up with his outbursts of temper. The incident caused a firestorm within the team and prompted Haitai Confectionery, the team’s owner, to have the incident investigated. The team was heavily criticized by the media and Kim was fired on April 28.

In those days, corporal punishment was so common that it’s doubtful whether Kim could have understood his assistant coaches’ decision to quit.

The Seoul-based LG Twins recently dealt with a similar incident. On Aug. 8, pitcher Seo Seung-hwa, 30, hit outfielder Lee Byeong-gyu, 26, with a baseball bat at a minor league training ground in Guri, Gyeonggi. Those who witnessed the assault said Seo told Lee that he didn’t like “how Lee was dealing with senior players.” Lee came out of the incident with head injuries that sent him to the hospital.

The LG Twins kept things under wraps until news of the incident spread. The team finally sent an official statement about it to the media on Aug. 23. Seo, who was designated to be the lead pitcher in a game against the Lotte Giants later that day, was suddenly pulled out of the starting lineup and replaced.

Same old playbook

Corporal punishment has long been part of the way sports teams operate here. The way it is dealt with by the teams and the media generally follows the same playbook. Whenever reports of a violent incident surface, those involved explain the incident away by saying it’s just the way things have always been done, and even after the news has spread, the perpetrators usually deny they’ve done anything wrong. In the end, most of the offenders walk away with a minor penalty and the game goes on. Meanwhile, the players who are witness to these acts of violence keep quiet to protect their fellow teammates. The cases usually end with the teams and the media brushing the incident aside.

The investigation into the Seo incident is still ongoing. However, neither LG Twins Manager Kim Jae-park nor the team have apologized for their roles in the matter.

Another tale of violence that took the baseball world by storm over 30 years ago is recounted in the book “Who’s Who in Korean Professional Baseball” by Hong Soon-il, a former deputy executive at the Munhwa Ilbo.

On March 24, 1979, the 13th national college baseball competition was held at Dongdaemun Stadium. Yonsei University lost to Dongguk University 2-4 and a senior Yonsei player struck a younger player in the head with a baseball bat. The junior player needed 17 days of treatment for his injuries.

The player’s father protested to team manager Lee Jae-hwan and pulled his son off of the team on March 27. He later asked Yonsei to release his son so he could transfer to another school.

The matter was not resolved until the following June, after the Korea Baseball Association had stepped in to mediate the matter. But the sense of hierarchy was so strong and the tradition of corporal punishment so embedded in the sport that both father and son ended up making a formal apology to Yonsei for having caused such a fuss.

The senior player who wielded the bat was Bak Cheol-sun, who later recorded 22 straight wins in his first year as a pro. The victim was Choi Dong-won, who was later considered one of the best pitchers in local professional baseball.

Dreams deferred

Another more recent incident involves Park Jeong-hyeok, a slugger from Whimoon High School and Korea University. Park made his name as a member of the Korean national team in many international competitions.

When he was in high school, during a particularly good streak in 1990, he hit home runs in three consecutive appearances against Gongju High School. The pitcher from the opposing team was Park Chan-ho, who now plays in the Major League for the Philadelphia Phillies in the U.S. The following day, Park Jeong-hyeok hit his fourth consecutive home run in a game against Gwangju Jinheung High School, setting another record.

Later, Park looked to be on his way to a successful career in the sport. However, when he graduated from Korea University, he barely made the cut as a member of the LG Twins’ farm team. Reports said that his skill level had suddenly declined, but the reason was a mystery to anyone who had followed his career up to that point. He had begun training with the Korea University team even before he graduated from high school, and he joined the team after a successful stint at an international competition in Guam with the national team in the winter of 1991. From the time he entered the university team to the time when he had his minor league tryout, there was no indication that Park had grown either lazy or apathetic about his playing.

It was later discovered, however, that Park had been the victim of severe corporal punishment during his time with the Korea University team. The injuries he sustained to his back and shoulders prevented him from advancing in the sport. He retired early, going on to found a sports marketing agency, TR Entertainment. But his misfortune didn’t end there. He died in a car accident in December 2000.

Park was only 19 years old when his career was interrupted. It is not certain why a young hopeful like Park, who was just about to graduate from high school, had become the victim of such extreme violence. The senior player who was found to have beaten Park retired from baseball early and became a coach at an elementary school and later at a college.

The violence is not limited to any one team, to coaches, managers or fellow teammates.

The OB Bears, now Doosan Bears, lost to Haitai in a game in Gunsan, North Jeolla, on Sept. 4, 1994. OB Bears Manager Yun Dong-kyun became enraged at the loss and tried to use physical violence against his players. Seventeen of them fought back, blocking Yun.

The most senior player at that time was Park Cheol-sun. After the incident, Park told the team he would retire if Yun stayed with the team, forcing Yun’s eventual resignation from his position.

In mid August 2002, Kia Tigers Manager Kim Sung-han stirred a huge controversy when he beat catcher Kim Ji-young three times on the head with a bat. The catcher was injured - despite the fact he had been wearing a helmet at the time of the attack.

This sparked a public outcry, especially among the team’s fans. The team later responded with a statement in support of the manager, saying the catcher had been punished for his own good, and for the good of the team. The team even tried to avoid responsibility for the incident by saying the catcher was injured because the helmet he was wearing was of low quality. The catcher retired at the end of the season in 2002. It was close to two years before the manager left, in the middle of the 2004 season.

School haze

Even before they make it onto a professional team, many athletes here are subjected to some form of hazing when they join high school or university teams. Hazing rituals on sports teams in Korea generally involve physical violence and are carried out by senior team members. Later, when the freshmen become sophomores, the ritual is repeated as the victims become the perpetrators.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology addressed the problem in June when they released a statement saying that school coaches who are caught using physical or sexual violence will be barred from coaching.

A wide field of play

Baseball is not the only sport plagued by violence in Korea. Recently, there was a similar incident with the Korea University basketball team. Manager Lim Jung-myung was caught using physical punishment against his players in May. He was fired in June after the players’ parents filed a petition with the school.

Lim’s successor, Lee Chung-hee, was also accused of assault. The father of a player filed a complaint with the Prosecutors’ Office in July, saying Lee hit his son in the face, injuring him so badly that he needed 10 days of medical care.

On April 14, 2005, Shin Young-cheol, the director of the LIG Insurance volleyball team, issued a common type of punishment used in the army and on sports teams. He ordered his players to bend completely over and balance with their hands clasped behind their backs. Shin then kicked the players in the neck.

A civilian who witnessed the scene wrote about it on the Korean Volleyball Federation’s Web site. Although Shin denied his actions, he was proven guilty and was given a six-month suspension and a three-month pay cut.

Despite increasing awareness about this kind of violent behavior and the growing public outcry against it, corporal punishment is so endemic to sport in Korea that it may be a while before the violence fades from the playing field completely.

“We recently had a fiasco on our team after a senior player hit a junior player,” said a trainer who works with a Seoul-based pro baseball team. “The incident was just swept under the rug again.”

By Kim Sung-won [jbiz91@joongang.co.kr]

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