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Barred from baseball (in Taiwan)

NANTOU CITY, Taiwan >> The former first baseman for the Brother Elephants, Taiwan’s equivalent of the Yankees, now spends most of his days and nights deep in a local stadium, in a spartan room with all the charm of an old warship.

He sleeps on a thin bed. Sports gear towers above him on metal cabinets. A coffee table overflows with snacks, ashtrays and teacups.

It is the coach’s quarters, where the former player, Tsai Feng-an, directs a high school baseball program, a shoestring operation that demands long hours and pays him a fraction of his old big-league salary. It is also where Tsai, whose name was once as famous as Don Mattingly’s, would rather not be.

“The local people are surprised I put up with these conditions, which is why they support me,” Tsai said. “But I still look at my baseball career fondly, even though there were bad things.”

The bad things derive from his role in one of the biggest gambling scandals in international baseball, a scheme in which Tsai and several dozen other players in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which is the top-tier league in Taiwan, were accused of throwing games from 2006 to 2009 in exchange for thousands of dollars from gamblers.

Orchestrating the fraud was a gangster who went by the nickname Windshield Wiper, an inside joke among his associates that referred to his quick temper. It was a colorful detail in a case that was as riveting for fans and commentators as a playoff series.

Gambling in baseball is almost as old as the game itself. In America, every fan knows about the Black Sox scandal, in which eight players threw the 1919 World Series, leading to lifetime bans. Pete Rose is still barred by Major League Baseball because he bet on games.

Gambling scandals have swept through the Asian leagues with alarming regularity, exposing deep ties between crime rings and the sport even as they strive to make an international mark.

This year, several players for the Tokyo Giants, Japan’s best-known team, were accused of consorting with gamblers. The troubles in Taiwan, however, were far larger. They almost sank the league.

Foreign players have thought twice before agreeing to play in Taiwan (at least one foreigner, a manager, was named in the scandal), and an Australian team declined to sign a Taiwanese pitcher who was linked to the scheme but not charged. (He played in the Dodgers’ farm system this year.) The country’s push to play host to a part of the World Baseball Classic, which is run by Major League Baseball, has slowed as well.

Before the arrest in 2009 of the Windshield Wiper, whose real name is Tsai Cheng-yi, the Taiwanese league endured several other game-fixing scandals, remarkable in a league that was founded only in 1989 and has had as few as four teams. Players were kidnapped and pistol-whipped, and their families were threatened. One coach was stabbed. Gangsters were arrested and players banished. Attendance dipped, too, but within a year or two, many fans returned.

The Windshield Wiper case, however, was much bigger.

From 2006 to 2009, the Windshield Wiper and his intermediaries paid dozens of players as much as $30,000 for each game they agreed to throw. In all, more than 40 players, coaches, retired players, gangsters and politicians were implicated, including Tsai, Chen Chih-yuan and other stars.

One manager was charged and left the country. An elected political leader in southern Taiwan, Wu Chien-pao, who ran his own gambling ring and had players beaten if they did not cooperate, was jailed. The Windshield Wiper is serving a four-year sentence.

The Elephants, Tsai Feng-an’s old team, were so badly damaged, they were sold.

Attendance leaguewide fell, but it perked up in 2013, when Manny Ramirez, the outfielder who had his best years with the Boston Red Sox in the early 2000s, played in Taiwan.

The league has tried to head off future scandals by allowing law enforcement officials to attend every game. Players are lectured on the evils of gambling and subject to random investigations. The criminal penalties for gambling and fraud were increased, and a national sports lottery was created to give gamblers a legal avenue to bet on games.

“We hope the worst has passed,” said John Chih-yang Wu, the league’s commissioner. “It’s impossible to stop the Taiwanese people from gambling, but we think we have good prevention now, and the influence of the mafia has decreased.”

There have been no reported cases of game-fixing since 2009, he said.

Most players involved confessed to taking part in the scheme and avoided jail by paying fines equal to the bribes they took.

They were banished from professional baseball, and having trained most of their lives to become ballplayers, they have had trouble finding work, the shame of being implicated sending them into hiding.

But two players, Tsai and Chen, agreed to speak to The New York Times about how they have sought to redeem themselves.

They have taken different paths.

Tsai returned to rural Nantou County. Because of his banishment, he cannot wear a baseball uniform or coach a team, so instead he looks for money to keep his program afloat and to build a new stadium. He bunks with his coaches and players in a dingy dormitory where the communal dining area is next to a homemade indoor batting cage.

Tsai had spent years fighting the charges that he helped throw four games. After his initial two-year jail sentence was reduced to six months, he agreed to pay a fine of about $100,000 to settle the case. His probation, which ended in August, required that he report daily to a police station, a humiliation he found difficult after such an illustrious career.

Friends offered him jobs at a university and a technology company, where he could have earned two to three times more than the roughly $1,000 a month he makes now. Instead, he returned to central Taiwan, where he grew up, to work with children and get back to basics.

“Most players would not be willing to do what I do now, teaching baseball in a school, because it’s a lot of work and not much money,” he said. “Even though I got a six-month sentence, I’m still pretty much a free soul.”

Chen lives a flashier life in Taipei. He runs a restaurant that serves aboriginal food like fried crickets, mountain boar and beetle nut flowers. His wife is a minor celebrity.

He also produces a rice snack with a friend and donates the proceeds to baseball programs in regions where poor aboriginal children live. He tutors high school players.

But in Taiwan, where baseball is almost a national religion, neither man will regain the stature he commanded as a professional ballplayer. Each continues to proclaim his innocence, but the game-fixing scandal has been a hard stain to erase.

“I left baseball because of the scandals, and that’s not something that I can change,” Chen said at his restaurant, La Fung, or The Guest. “But I can change myself, set goals for myself. I have a wife and kids to take care of. I need to maintain a positive attitude.”

Like other players from rural Taiwan, Tsai and Chen saw baseball as their ticket out of poverty.

Tsai began playing in the streets with friends with whatever equipment they could find. When he was 10, he was recruited to attend a private school with a well-known team. In 1988, Tsai was good enough to travel to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where his team won the title by beating the team from Pearl City, Hawaii.

When the boys returned home, they were paraded through the streets. The trip was eye-opening for the son of a bus driver and a hairdresser who rarely saw him play.

“Country folks don’t really watch baseball games,” Tsai said over noodles at a restaurant near his school. “They have loads of things to do; they’re very busy.”

Given his modest means, playing baseball was a necessity. He turned pro in 1997 and joined the Mercuries Tigers. When that club folded after the 1999 season, Tsai joined the Brother Elephants. He had a career year in 2002, hitting 21 home runs and batting .294. He played in the 2004 Olympics, where Taiwan finished fifth.

“By the time I became a pro, I wouldn’t say I was happy about this,” said Tsai, rail thin and all business. “Most of the players come from poorer families, so the only thing they thought about was playing well so they would have a bargaining chip to get more money to help their families. It was a job.”

Tsai has three young children, but his days are spent with his players, with potential donors and at the construction site where a new county stadium is being built. He said he gets up at 6 a.m. and finishes work at midnight.

Budgets are tight, so broken bats and worn baseballs are patched up with tape.

He said he told his students that pro ballplayers can earn a lot of money, but also spend a lot of it. Better, he said, to live modestly and humbly.

Unlike Tsai, who works in relative anonymity, Chen lives in Taipei in plain sight. Tan and fit, he was known as the Golden Warrior on the Elephants. But while once among the highest-paid players in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, earning about $100,000 a year, Chen now tries to make ends meet.

Most days, he is at his restaurant. He advises a high school baseball team that his brother coaches. With a friend, he produces dried snacks called hao bang, which means “good bat” in English. A cartoon of Chen’s face is on the wrappers.

The profits are spent on sports equipment for poor children, he said. He is from an aboriginal village in eastern Taiwan, where he said he had no refrigerator and went barefoot as a child.

The legal troubles effectively ended his career, something he has tried to get past.

Chen is now more cautious, wary of gangsters. When he is invited to dine out, he asks who else will be there. If there is a name he does not recognize, he declines the invitation. He also tells younger players to simplify their lives, implying that he did not. After all, he was sentenced to at least a year in jail that he settled by paying a fine.

“My own story is like teaching material for other people to learn from,” he said. “The scandal is in the past and it’s bound to surface one day, so there’s no running away from it. I learned a lot, and if people don’t like it, I will do better to make them understand I’m not who they think.”

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