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Military service looms over KBO

Olympics and Asiad drop baseball, making exemptions unlikely

Apr 17,2019
One of the biggest questions facing male Korean athletes today is not whether they’ll get signed with the best team or make the national squad, it’s whether they’ll have to serve their mandatory military service - and if so, how.

The Korean national baseball team celebrates after winning a game at the 2018 Asian Games. [YONHAP]
For professional baseball players, the long shadow of mandatory military service just got a little bit longer.

On April 9, the organizing committee for the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games selected 37 sporting events to be included in the Asiad, and baseball was not one of them.

For Korean baseball players, the exclusion of baseball takes away the chance of a military exemption earned through a gold medal. Korean male athletes who win an Asian Games gold or any Olympic medal receive an exemption from their mandatory military service. Athletes that have already started their military service are immediately discharged.

“Baseball was selected as an official sport at the Asiad in: Doha, Qatar; Guangzhou, China; and Jakarta, Indonesia. Those countries didn’t even have baseball fields,” said a source close to the Korea Baseball Softball Association. “Last year, for the Jakarta-Palembang [Asian Games], baseball was added as an official event a year before the opening. It’s too early to be disappointed.”

As the event doesn’t kick off until Sept. 10, 2022, there’s still a possibility that baseball could be re-added in the near future.

Baseball was first added as an official event at the Asian Games in 1994. Since then, it’s been included in seven consecutive Asiads.

However, looking at the recent trend, baseball seems to be disappearing from international sporting festivals. After baseball was excluded at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics, it is returning for the 2020 Games but is highly likely to be excluded again for the 2024 Paris Games.

At this pace, after 2020, baseball will not appear at a major international multisport event until at least 2026, potentially skipping a generation of players.

“China had increased their interest in baseball recently,” said Lotte Giants manager Yang Sang-moon. “It is disappointing that baseball will be excluded from the Asian Games.”

Although the World Baseball Classic and Premier 12 are other major international baseball tournaments, players are not given military exemptions if they take home top honors.

But a military exemption isn’t the only way for sports stars to avoid rank-and-file military life. Some sports, including baseball, operate professional teams using drafted players. In baseball, players could end up spending their mandatory military service on the field for either the Sangmu Baseball Team or the Police Baseball Team in the Futures League.

Although the two clubs may not be as competitive as their KBO counterparts, the military sports teams allow players to continue their career instead of spending 21 months without so much as tossing a ball in the regular military.

But earning a spot on a Futures League team is now far more difficult. The Police Baseball Team is set to be disbanded in 2023 and stopped drafting new players as of November 2018. Due to this, Sangmu is now the only choice that KBO players without an exemption have.

Every year, Sangmu recruits about 15 to 17 players. Of the players registered in the KBO entry this season, 47 are yet to complete their military duty. As the Police Baseball Team is no longer drafting players, earning a spot on the Sangmu team is now considerably more difficult.

Inevitably, more players are going to end up serving a more traditional form of military service, assigned to one of the three arms of the military, the police or a civil service position. For players in their mid-20s in the prime of their baseball careers, this could be devastating.

But actually, that hasn’t always been the case. There are players in the KBO who have found success after completing their military service. The most famous player to have served his military service without joining one of the baseball teams is probably Seo Geon-chang of the Kiwoom Heroes. A total of 15 currently active KBO players went through the regular military service.

Seo made his professional debut by joining the Twins as a developing player in 2008 but was released by the club only a year later. Once he was released, Seo completed his military service and joined the Heroes through a tryout after he was discharged. In 2014, Seo was named a regular-season MVP and was the first player ever to get 201 hits in a season.

“I built up my body through weight training while in the military,” Seo said.

Samsung Lions pitcher Kwon Oh-joon, who made his professional debut in 1999, fulfilled his mandatory military duty as a marine from 2000 to 2002. Once he was discharged from the military, Kwon returned to the Lions in 2003, and a year later, he picked up 11 wins, five losses, two saves and seven holds with a 3.23 ERA, playing as a starter and in the bullpen.

In 2005, Kwon played as the Lions’ closer and picked up 17 saves with a 2.29 ERA. This season, Kwon is playing his 21st season in the KBO and is still on the Lions entry.

“At the time, I joined the marines thinking that I might have to give up my professional career because my elbow wasn’t good,” Kwon said. “But throughout my time in the military, I learned how important baseball was to me.”

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG, PARK SO-YOUNG [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]


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