By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, July 17 (Yonhap) -- In the latest fallout from a COVID-19-related misconduct scandal, South Korean pitcher Han Hyun-hee withdrew from the Olympic baseball team Saturday.
The right-hander was promptly replaced by former major league closer Oh Seung-hwan.
Han, who pitches for the Kiwoom Heroes in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), admitted to and apologized for leaving the team hotel on a road trip last week for drinks with a teammate and three other guests.
Contact tracing and epidemiological studies are under way to determine if there was any violation of social distancing rules.
A meeting of five people, one more than permitted at the time, would typically constitute violations of social distancing rules, but the Heroes claimed there was an exception in the case because Han, as an Olympic athlete, had been fully vaccinated and thus didn't count toward the total.
But local health officials say they need to verify statements given by players and others involved in the case.
The Heroes were visiting Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul, on July 5 to play the KT Wiz. Without reporting to the club, Han left his Suwon hotel in the early hours of July 5 and met his party at another hotel in Seoul.
"I'd like to apologize from the bottom of my heart for letting you down with my inappropriate actions," Han said in his statement. "I don't deserve to be cheered on by the people of Korea at the Olympics. I am terribly sorry that I've caused disruption to the Olympic team's preparation."
Han was selected as one of two sidearm pitchers, alongside Ko Young-pyo of the KT Wiz. Han is 5-2 with a 3.79 ERA in 13 starts and one relief appearance this year. He has split his career as a starter and a reliever, and was expected to be a versatile swingman at the Olympics.
In comes Oh, who becomes the elder statesman in a largely green pitching staff at age 39. The Samsung Lions legend is the all-time KBO saves leader with 322 and leads the league this year with 27. He has a 2.52 ERA in 35 2/3 innings.
The right-hander also recorded 80 saves for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan from 2014 to 2015, and picked up 42 saves in the majors from 2016 to 2019 while pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays and Colorado Rockies.
Oh helped South Korea to the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, picking up a win and a save in two appearances without allowing any earned runs.
The Heroes' case is the latest in the misconduct scandal that has engulfed the KBO.
On Wednesday, Park Sok-min, Park Min-woo, Kwon Hui-dong and Lee Myung-ki from another KBO club, NC Dinos, confessed to holding a drinking party at the same Seoul hotel with two others on July 5. They had violated distancing regulations, as only one of them, Park Min-woo, had been vaccinated as an Olympic baseball team member. All others in that meeting have since tested positive for COVID-19. Park, who escaped infection, took himself off the Olympic team in the aftermath.
The KBO banned the four players for the rest of this season Friday. The four players have been accused of obstructing health authorities' contact tracing by providing false information at first.
The Hanwha Eagles also said some of their players left the road hotel on their own to have drinks with other guests at the exact same Seoul hotel that held parties for Kiwoom and NC players.
On Monday, in light of three positive cases from the Dinos and two more from the Doosan Bears, the KBO pressed pause on the regular season. All games scheduled for this week were pushed back, and the league had long planned an Olympic break from next Monday to Aug. 9.
South Korea, the defending Olympic champion from 2008, will play its first preliminary game against Israel on July 29 and then face the United States on July 31.
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