Nearly 10 years ago, Taiwanese pitcher Chin-hui Tsao was considered a top 25 baseball prospect. He had a powerful fastball and was deemed a future ace. In his first professional season in the United States in 2000, a 19-year-old Tsao struck out 187 batters in 145 innings. By 2003, Tsao was pitching for the Colorado Rockies.
But several arm and shoulder injuries derailed his career, and in 2009 he returned to Taiwan to play in the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL). He has not pitched in the U.S. since.
Last week, reports surfaced that the Los Angeles Dodgers were close to signing Tsao, now 33, to a minor league contract—a transaction that would hardly be notable if not for the fact that Tsao hasn't pitched professionally since that 2009 season in Taiwan, a result of having been named in a match-fixing scandal in his home country. Tsao was banned for life from the CPBL despite a Taiwanese court having acquitted him of any charges.
Although he was not convicted, the acquittal papers alleged that Tsao had conspired to fix two games; one of which never occurred because of a rain-out and the second of which was allegedly not fixed after several players backed out. Still, the accusations were enough to kill Tsao's career in his home country.
The first player from Taiwan to appear in the major leagues, Tsao—who received a still-record $2.2 million signing bonus in 1999—has become a symbol for the CPBL's new, tough stance on game-fixing.
The CPBL so believed that Tsao's ban was necessary to maintain the integrity of Taiwanese professional baseball that last month the league pressured the Australian Baseball League to nullify Tsao's contract agreement with the Adelaide Bite, where Tsao had hoped to showcase himself to major league teams.
Why would the CPBL take such a hard stance against a prominent player? Quite simply because game-fixing has threatened baseball in Taiwan for nearly 20 years.
Baseball has been Taiwan's most popular sport for more than a century. Japanese occupation of the island brought the sport to Taiwan in the late 19th century. Baseball thrived despite a lack of support from the Chinese nationalist party after World War II. By the late 1960s, baseball had become a source of pride for Taiwan, which, under pressure from China, had lost its United Nations seat.
So while Taiwan faced political international ambiguity, the country's youth baseball teams helped establish an identity for the island. Taiwanese youth teams won 10 of 13 Little League World Series titles from 1969-81. Tournament organizers banned foreign teams from the 1975 Little League World Series in large part because of Taiwan's dominance.
On October 23, 1989, several businessmen agreed to found the CPBL with four teams backed by Taiwanese companies: Wei Chuan Corp., Uni-President Enterprises Corp., Mercuries & Associates, and Brother Hotel, Inc. Attendance was nearly 5,000 fans per game in that inaugural 1990 season. The league expanded to six teams in 1993, and then added a seventh team in 1997.
But the China Times Eagles were soon disbanded after the first major game-fixing scandal in 1997. Several investigations revealed that players from the Eagles, the Mercuries Tigers, and the Wei Chuan Dragons had participated in game-fixing after having been physically threatened by gangsters. At one point, gangsters even stabbed Wei Chuan's manager, Hsu Sheng-ming, a Taiwanese baseball legend, after he refused to participate in game-fixing.
Similar scandals arose in 2005 and then again in 2008, which resulted in the disbanding of several other teams and a complete reorganization of the league. But not even that could prevent the 2009 scandal involving Tsao and his Brother Elephants team—the country's most popular player and most popular franchise. Taiwan was not past its corruption problems, and previously attempted solutions had proven to only be cosmetic.
"Instead of going after some of the source problems—organized crime and dirty politicians—they quickly cut loose all the players brought up on allegations, whether they are guilty or not," said one Taiwanese baseball insider who did not want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the topic. No source who spoke to VICE Sports for this story wanted their name used.
The CPBL is susceptible to match fixing for several reasons: first, the Asian gambling market is a billion dollar industry and it infects all countries in the region in some way.
Second, Taiwanese players are among the lowest paid in professional baseball.
"The league just doesn't respect the player," said one scout based in Taiwan. "The league is just not professional."
Players earn a base salary of just over $2,000 per month, which is not guaranteed. A player, despite having a multi-year contract, can be released at any time. There is also no true free agency and no real minor league system. Some teams make players stay at high school dorms during spring training, and many players are obligated to perform clubhouse attendant duties.
It is also worth considering the socio-economic backgrounds of some of the players. As a result of baseball's popularity in the 1970s, Taiwanese schools began to offer the sport almost as a vocational class. Young Taiwanese kids essentially began to focus on baseball rather than on academics.
Players spent more time training than they did in the classroom, and schools recruited players from afar to improve their baseball teams to participate in ultra-competitive leagues.
"It becomes baseball training for most of the high schools," said the Taiwanese baseball insider. "Even though it's school, academics are not part of their education."
Schools began to recruit players from some of Taiwan's most impoverished neighborhoods. Aboriginal Taiwanese—like Tsao—who had grown up without much of an education, and had been some of the country's most marginalized citizens, were particular targets. As a result, a large chunk of the CPBL player pool became comprised of aboriginal Taiwanese.
All of this helped create an environment where players became willing participants in game-fixing because they needed money to supplement their low salaries, or because they had grown up in an environment of economic survival where crime was not necessarily seen as an illicit activity, or they simply lacked the education to make better decisions.
"With game-fixing problems, the players' social background and value system and what type of character development they received are things that need to be considered," the Taiwanese baseball insider said. "When they don't get character development as part of their education, and they begin to have values that are more about money, how do you overcome these pressures as adults to make the right judgments?"
Game-fixing followed a similar path, according to sources. A former teammate or a friend would introduce players to gangsters. This usually happened during a social outing where players were treated to drinks and, often, sexual favors. Once in contact with the gangsters, these players were soon asked to fix games, sometimes forcefully.
Some gangsters were powerful enough where they could directly call into the clubhouse to check on their investment.
The league has tried to combat this criminal element by forcing players to attend anti-gambling seminars during spring training. Players are also made to sign consent forms that allow league officials to monitor their cell phones.
Yet that might still not be enough.
"People I've talked to still think it's probably going on in some form," said one American League team scout. "There hasn't been a high profile bust like when Tsao was indicted, but the gangster/mafia culture is so prominent in the country it's tough to root it out of baseball."
And that's why the CPBL believes Tsao's case has become so important.
In June 2010, shortly after he had been banned in Taiwan, Tsao worked out for several major league team scouts in the U.S. He did well enough in those tryouts to attract some interest.
But MLB was hesitant to approve any deal until a full investigation had been conducted. In order to fully vet Tsao, MLB deployed its investigative unit—the same group that had been put together to untangle PED use, and had also helped curb illegal activities in the signing of Latin American amateur players. After a lengthy investigation, Tsao, according to several sources, was cleared to sign with a major league team.
This has been Tsao's biggest claim to innocence. But Tsao remained unsigned until now. It was only after Tsao's workout for MLB team scouts in November 2014 that interest in him arose again. During that tryout in front of about 15 teams, Tsao threw 92-93 mph and appeared in good shape. Yet that was only good enough to get him a minor league deal.
"At the end of the day, he's had so many injuries and some of the baggage he brings was just not worth the risk," said one National League team scout, who said he had been impressed with Tsao's workout. "If we would have signed Tsao, it would have created some commotion."
He added: "As far as I know, I think he's innocent. But there's a lot of gray area out there."