By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 30 (Yonhap) -- Things could get even uglier now.
On Monday, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) handed down a two-month suspension to Hur Min, chairman of the board for the Kiwoom Heroes, for "inappropriate and unnecessary behavior" stemming from a 2019 incident. The Heroes responded the following day that they will "ask judicial authorities to make their decision," which was a euphemistic way of saying they were taking legal action against the KBO over that suspension.
Hur, a millionaire-turned-baseball executive, caused a stir in October when it was belatedly revealed, through a TV news report, that he had forced the Heroes' minor league players to stay late after their practice in June last year so he could play catch and throw live batting practice. Hur came under fire for his apparent lack of respect for professional athletes and for using his authority to turn their baseball field into his personal playground.
Before he joined the Heroes, Hur had made headlines in 2013, when the self-proclaimed Phil Niekro disciple took his knuckleball-throwing adventure to an independent league baseball club in New York.
Niekro, the Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher, passed away last Sunday, only a day before Hur received his ban.
The aforementioned incident with the minor leaguers took place in June 2019. Four months prior to that, during the Heroes' intrasquad spring training game in Peoria, Arizona, Hur also made a pitching appearance and threw two innings against KBO hitters. The Heroes shot down speculation that Hur had forced his way into the game and said the players asked him to pitch.
Then things took a turn for the bizarre earlier this month.
The June incident made news after an anonymous tip from a baseball fan who filmed Hur's action on a smartphone and sent the clip to the TV station. In early December, former Kiwoom captain Lee Taek-keun claimed that the Heroes had attempted to retaliate against the tipster based on their closed-circuit TV footage. Lee also said the Heroes asked him to help identify and track down that anonymous fan.
The Heroes rejected Lee's allegations, but the KBO reviewed those claims. The league opened disciplinary proceedings on Dec. 22 but deliberated a full week before reaching its decision -- a highly unusual step considering penalties are typically announced on the same day of disciplinary meetings.
The KBO's disciplinary committee, which includes lawyers, initially settled on a warning for Hur, citing lack of grounds for a harsher penalty. Some members of the committee also feared that the Heroes would take the KBO to court and would stand a strong chance of winning that battle.
But KBO Commissioner Chung Un-chan was adamant that Hur had to be disciplined. Hur had already been a controversial figure this year, with his alleged meddling in on-field decision-making processes cited as the main reason behind manager Son Hyuk's abrupt dismissal.
In the end, Chung overruled the disciplinary committee. The KBO's press release announcing the punishment also included a statement from Chung.
"Kiwoom has betrayed obligations of a professional sports organization to put fans above all else," Chung said. "The team also destroyed the trust-based relationship between the club and its players, and caused disruption to order in the rest of the league."
The KBO chose not to discipline the Heroes or any of their officials for their alleged surveillance of the tipster, saying it will reexamine the case if the team is criminally punished.
The league bristled at the Heroes' audacity to take matters to court.
"We felt we needed to send a message that Hur Min needed to stop acting the way he has," a KBO official said, asking for anonymity. "He may not have done anything illegal (by pitching against minor leaguers), but any type of behavior deemed unacceptable by fans and the rest of the league must not be tolerated."
The Heroes said they will be "transparent" as they seek legal action, and the KBO official was not impressed.
"The Heroes are a member of this league, and they have to honor their responsibilities if they want to enjoy their rights," the official said. "I think the first thing they should have done is to apologize and to promise fans there wouldn't be a repeat of what happened."
The KBO had the backing of the Korea Professional Baseball Players Association (KPBPA), which released a statement on Tuesday in support of the penalty against Hur.
"We hope this suspension of Hur Min will stop clubs from engaging in behavior that infringes on rights and interests of KBO players and that deceives fans of professional baseball," the KPBPA said. "The KBO should consider banishing Hur for greatly damaging the integrity of the league. We also condemn Hur's lack of contrition toward the Heroes players, who are the real victims here."
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