KBO club Kia Tigers in disarray after firing manager facing bribery suspicions

January 31, 2024

The Kia Tigers have been gearing up for the 2024 season in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) with some high hopes until this week, when their postseason aspirations took a backseat to the abrupt dismissal of manager Kim Jong-kook over bribery suspicions.

The Seoul Central District Court held a hearing on the prosecution’s application for an arrest warrant for Kim and for the team’s ex-general manager, Jang Jung-suk, on Tuesday, the same day the Tigers traveled to Australia for spring training and one day after the club cut ties with Kim.

The court refused to issue the writ on the grounds that the two figures were not a flight risk and were not likely to destroy evidence. Both are being accused of taking bribes from a coffee chain in exchange for helping the company sign a sponsorship deal with the Tigers.

Jang was dismissed in March last year due to a different set of accusations. On Sunday, the Tigers suspended Kim from his duties, after learning that Kim had faced questioning from prosecutors over bribery charges.

This composite photo shows former Kia Tigers manager Kim Jong-kook (L) and former Tigers general manager Jang Jung-suk entering the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on Jan. 30, 2024, for a hearing on applications for their arrest warrants over bribery charges. (Yonhap)
This composite photo shows former Kia Tigers manager Kim Jong-kook (L) and former Tigers general manager Jang Jung-suk entering the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on Jan. 30, 2024, for a hearing on applications for their arrest warrants over bribery charges. (Yonhap)

Prosecutors in Seoul applied for an arrest warrant for Kim and Jang on Monday. Within hours, the Tigers terminated their contract with Kim. The 50-year-old was entering the final season of his three-year contract worth 1.05 billion won (US$789,240).

Kim spent his entire 14-year playing career with the Tigers, from 1996 to 2009, and served as a coach for the club for another decade before taking the managerial reins.

Jang was dismissed in March last year for allegedly demanding a kickback from a free agent player during contract talks. And during their investigation into Jang’s case, prosecutors noticed other suspicious transactions involving both Jang and Kim.

Neither Kim nor Jang spoke to the media before and after attending the hearing on their arrest warrants at the Seoul court.

Jang was sacked only two days before the start of the regular season last year. Then this year, the Tigers dismissed their skipper with spring training just around the corner, the time of year when players are usually upbeat and hopeful about a fresh start.

Instead, Tigers players mostly cut solemn figures Tuesday afternoon at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, as they prepared to head Down Under. Captain Na Sung-bum said he’d told his teammates that they should keep their focus on things that they can control.

“I told the guys that we shouldn’t be distracted by this and we have to keep sticking to our routines,” Na said. “We have our fans behind us and we have high expectations going into the new season. Our job now is to train as hard as we can.”

Na, however, admitted that the vibe on the team bus to the airport wasn’t great.

“Spring training marks the start of a new season, and this is like a New Year’s Day for baseball players. We used to greet each other with smiles,” Na said. “I tried to make sure we wouldn’t get too down on ourselves today, but it hasn’t been easy.”

Starting pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong, a longtime staff ace and a beloved franchise icon, called on his teammates to hold their heads high.

“We should all remember what we’re trying to accomplish this season and concentrate on our training,” Yang added.

Kim became the first active KBO manager to face a criminal investigation on corruption suspicions. This is just the kind of dubious history no KBO team wants to make, especially a club as widely beloved as the Tigers.

Based in the southwestern city of Gwangju, the Tigers have won more Korean Series championships than any team in KBO history with 11. Some recent dips in attendance figures notwithstanding, the Tigers have long been one of the most popular clubs in the league. Their fans are known to travel well and turn road games into de facto home games for the Tigers with their boisterous cheering.

In 2022, their first season under Kim, the Tigers made it to the wild card game with a record of 70-73-1 (wins-losses-ties), a 12-win jump from 2021, but lost to the KT Wiz.

They had an even better regular season record in 2023, going 73-69-2, but finished a game back of the Doosan Bears for the final postseason spot.

During this offseason, the Tigers signed two former major league pitchers, Wil Crowe and James Naile, to be their new foreign starters, after finishing the 2023 season with Thomas Pannone and Mario Sanchez. The Tigers haven’t received strong performances from their foreign hurlers since Aaron Brooks and Drew Gagnon were manning the rotation in 2020, and they have high expectations for the new duo. The Tigers retained outfielder Socrates Brito to round out their foreign trio for 2024.

In addition, they re-signed their own free agent, infielder Kim Sun-bin, while giving a former regular season most valuable player, Seo Geon-chang, a second chance in his hometown after the 34-year-old hit a rough patch during a three-year stint with the LG Twins. The Tigers also gave designated hitter Choi Hyoung-woo, the KBO’s career RBI leader, a new two-year deal after a productive season by the 40-year-old.

With a good mix of young talent and seasoned veterans up and down their roster, the Tigers were seen as a postseason contender this year. But they have now become a team in disarray, having to find a new manager before the start of spring training.

The 2024 regular season will begin on March 23.