(ATTN: ADDS background in para 15, more instances at bottom)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, July 16 (Yonhap) -- Four players from the defending South Korean baseball champions NC Dinos were banned for the rest of the 2021 season Friday for violating social distancing rules.
The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) handed down 72-game bans on Park Sok-min, Park Min-woo, Kwon Hui-dong and Lee Myung-ki after its disciplinary meeting held earlier in the day.
The Dinos have 70 games left on the 144-game season, meaning the quartet will be ineligible for the remainder of this year and then two more games next year.
The four players were fined 10 million won (US$8,770) each. The Dinos were ordered to pay a fine of 100 million won for their lack of oversight.
The disciplinary proceedings opened two days after the four players were found to have met with two outside guests for beers in a room at their road hotel in Seoul on July 5. Their meeting started late that night and stretched into the early hours the next day.
On Wednesday, amid rumors that some Dinos players had breached distancing rules, Park Sok-min, the senior member of the group at 36, admitted to the illegal gathering of six people. Private meetings of more than four people were being banned in Seoul at the time.
Park Min-woo also apologized for his actions and withdrew himself from the Olympic team.
The KBO said the players caused "injury to dignity" by breaching social distancing rules during the pandemic.
Moments after the bans were announced, Dinos' CEO Hwang Soon-hyun resigned from his post.
The club's owner, NCSOFT CEO Kim Taek-jin, apologized to baseball fans and the rest of the KBO for causing trouble.
"As the owner of the club, I will take responsibility for this incident and take whatever steps necessary to regain trust (of our fans)," Kim said in a statement. "The buck stops with me. All club officials and players involved in the case will be held accountable."
Local health authorities have accused the four players of obstructing preliminary contact tracing, charging they didn't mention the hotel room drinking session when pressed for their whereabouts.
Of the six people at the meeting, only Park Min-woo, who had been fully vaccinated as an Olympic athlete, escaped COVID-19 infection. The five others all tested positive.
The three cases on the Dinos, plus two others on the Doosan Bears, forced the KBO to press pause on the regular season Monday. All games scheduled for this week have been pushed back to later in the season, and the league had long planned to go on an Olympic break from next Monday to Aug. 9.
The Dinos' transgression comes in the middle of another pandemic-plagued season when fans have been under strict restrictions at stadiums. For instance, they are prohibited from consuming food or alcohol from their seats, and until recently, they weren't allowed to sit side by side even with family members or friends. For the most part, fans have been honoring those rules to help keep the season going without an outbreak from the stands. Against this backdrop, learning of players flouting health protocols and disrupting the season has angered fans.
Even before the players' admission to their misconduct, the Dinos had been under fire for pushing hard for the suspension of the season. Given the relatively small number of COVID-19 cases, the Dinos could have called up minor league players to replace ailing KBO veterans and keep the season going.
The Dinos also kept mum on players' suspected breach of social distancing rules, in the face of rampant rumors and media reports.
Two other clubs, the Kiwoom Heroes and the Hanwha Eagles, announced Friday that they had disciplined their players for meeting with outside guests during recent road trips without permission.
The Heroes said two of their players had a drinking session with three others in the early hours of July 5, hours before they were to play the KT Wiz on the road in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul.
The Heroes said the two players left the team hotel to join their friends at the same hotel where the Dinos players had their gathering. A meeting of five people would typically constitute violation of social distancing rules, but one Kiwoom player had been fully vaccinated and didn't count toward the total, meaning there was no breach of protocols.
However, the Heroes said they'd still discipline the two players for their careless action.
One of the players has tested negative for the COVID-19 and the other is awaiting his result, the Heroes said, adding that they've canceled their practice for Saturday and asked the remaining payers, coaches and front office staff to be tested.
The Eagles said two players had separately met with friends in their hotel room during a road trip to Seoul last week. One of the friends was later infected with COVID-19, but the Eagles said every player, coach and front office staff has tested negative.
The Eagles said there were no social distancing violations otherwise, but they, like the Heroes, handed down their own punishment on the players.
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