Japan's pro baseball organisation Wednesday said it had suspended three pitchers indefinitely and fined its biggest team, the Yomiuri Giants, $800,000 over a betting scandal which has shocked the sport.
Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) suspended Giants pitchers Satoshi Fukuda, Shoki Kasahara and Ryuya Matsumoto for betting on games, which is illegal. They are reportedly the first such sanctions in 56 years.
"They can't play in the professional league for an indefinite period of time but it's possible that they can be reinstated later if there is a call for leniency," an NPB spokesman told AFP.
The NPB imposed 10 million yen ($800,000) in fines on the Giants -- Japan's most valuable team and the equivalent of the New York Yankees in terms of popularity -- for failing to properly supervise the players.
The ultimate impact on the Giants remains to be seen, but the scandal was seen as damaging to the sport which is one of five proposed for inclusion in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
At a press conference Tuesday, NPB commissioner Katsuhiko Kumazaki said it had "degraded professional baseball and destroyed the trust of many fans".
Hiroshi Kubo, president of the Giants, apologised at a separate press conference late Tuesday, saying: "We regard this as an extremely grave situation, and express our sincere apology to fans."
An in-house NPB report submitted on Tuesday found that the players bet money with known gamblers in about 10 professional baseball games, but did not find any evidence of game-fixing.
One of them bet on a Yomiuri Giants game but did not play in the game, it said.
The bans were front-page news in mass-circulation newspapers on Wednesday in Japan, where the sport is wildly popular and the level of play world-class.
Many of Japan's top players have migrated to Major League baseball in the United States over the past two decades.
Among top Japanese players currently in the US Major League are outfielder and ace batter Ichiro Suzuki of the Miami Marlins, and Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish.
- 'An embarrassment' -
Gambling in Japan is generally illegal, including most sports betting. The bans were the first since 1969, when a game-fixing scandal linked to gambling and organised crime rocked the sport, according to local media.
It was not clear if the players will face criminal charges, but spokesman Satoru Matsunaga of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department said police "have questioned the three pitchers on a voluntary basis".
"We can't disclose the contents of the interviews," he told AFP, when asked about local reports that investigators were checking if the players had violated the criminal law against gambling.
Top sports officials expressed concern over the impact.
"It is an embarrassment for the world of sports," Daichi Suzuki, former Olympic swimming champion and chief of Japan's new government sports agency, said according to the Asahi newspaper.
"I will do my best through (administrative) guidance to protect the nobility of Japanese sports."
Japan Olympic Committee's president Tsunekazu Takeda expressed similar sentiments.
"We have to do our best in supervising each sports organisation," he told the Asahi.
Tokyo 2020 Olympic officials are keen to see baseball reinstated after losing its status in the quadrennial summer event in 2008, and has said the scandal threatened the integrity of the sport.
Observers said the punishment was appropriate but a key is to prevent a repeat.
"It is a serious concern that this kind of problem occurred in the Giants, the leader in the world of baseball," Munehiko Harada, professor of sports science at Waseda University, told the Yomiuri newspaper.
"The baseball league as a whole is required to think about preventive measures," he said.
Shinya Miyamoto, formerly of the Yakult Swallows, a Central League rival to the Giants, and who was a member of the NPB probe team, told the Asahi: "It's undeniable that there are various temptations (in professional baseball).
"It's important to promote players' awareness (that gambling is illegal)."