Taiwan's Baseball Season Begins With Rest of the Sports World on Hold

When the Chinese Professional Baseball League kicks off in Taiwan on Saturday, it will be the first major league to start its season this year.
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Baseball, like so much else, is shut down around the world. MLB does not know how or when it will end its indefinite hiatus for the coronavirus. The minor leagues are empty; so are indy ball and college ball and high school ball. The Mexican League has closed spring training. Even in countries that previously hoped to start their seasons relatively soon, Opening Day has been postponed: The Korea Baseball Organization is targeting the beginning of next month while Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan is trying for late May.

Which means that when the Chinese Professional Baseball League kicks off in Taiwan on Saturday, it will be the first major league to start its season this year.

Taiwan’s coronavirus response has been among the best globally. With a population of 24 million, the island has just a few hundred confirmed cases, a growth rate that has slowed in the last few weeks, and a total of only five deaths. (Taiwan announced its first case of the virus on Jan. 21, one day after the first cases in the United States and South Korea, and has now reported a total of 380.) As a result, daily life is now close to normal, baseball included. After a brief postponement due to the outbreak—CPBL Opening Day was originally scheduled for March 14—the regular season starts on Saturday. And for American players in the CPBL, that means a starkly different environment from what their friends and family face at home.

“If you came through here right now, it’s like a normal day, really,” says Bryan Woodall, who has pitched the last five seasons in the CPBL, after spending seven years in the minors with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Everywhere we go, we’re getting our temperatures taken, and we’re required to wear a mask… But we’re able to go out in public, we’re able to go out to eat, we’re able to do our own thing.”

Besides masks and temperature checks, there are restrictions on international travel and fines for spreading misinformation. Technology has played a key role here, too: At the start of the pandemic, Taiwan integrated its national healthcare database with its customs records to find potential cases. The quick action has meant no widespread shutdown of schools, shopping, or regular activity.

Still, Saturday’s Opening Day for the CPBL won’t be all business as usual: Stadiums will be empty, at least for the first few weeks, as large public gatherings remain limited in Taiwan. (The league started playing without fans at the end of spring training; one team has announced that it will adjust for the regular season by placing robot “fans” in the seats.) This makes a notable difference for a brand of baseball traditionally known for its cheerleaders, noisy crowds and synchronized chants for each hitter.

“It’s kind of peaceful, honestly,” CPBL pitcher Josh Roenicke jokes about getting on the mound with no fans. “Games out here get so loud. But we’ll see how long that lasts, I’m sure it’ll get boring after a while, and hopefully fans can be in here sooner rather than later.”

Roenicke has plenty of peace and quiet now: He’s in a 14-day mandatory quarantine, like every other person who has recently traveled to Taiwan. After spending spring training with his team, the Uni-President Lions, he took paternity leave for the birth of his daughter back in Florida on March 24. He’s been in a public quarantine facility since his return on March 29. It’s just like a hotel—but with a directive not to leave the room, meals delivered to his door three times a day and regular check-ins about potential symptoms from the Taiwanese CDC.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” says Roenicke, now beginning his third season in the CPBL after a career in MLB. “It’s a small room, and, you know, there’s a lot of hours in the day.”

Roenicke—son of Gary, nephew of Red Sox manager Ron and brother-in-law of Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond—does have one special feature in his quarantine room: The Lions had a basket of dumbbells and exercise bands dropped off before his arrival. He can’t quite keep a regular throwing routine in a hotel room, but with daily workouts, he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to pitch soon after he gets out of quarantine. (Which will be two days after Opening Day, almost perfectly timed: “We thought the baby was going to come early,” he laughs. “She didn’t.”)

To check in back home is to see a different world. Woodall’s family is in Georgia, where his wife is trying to balance working from home with watching their toddler daughter while daycare is closed. Roenicke’s wife, Nikki, is with their newborn and three older children in Florida, grateful that the house they bought six months ago has a big backyard for socially distanced play. Mike Loree, a pitcher who has been in the CPBL since 2012, originally hoped that his wife and two kids could leave Arizona to join him in Taiwan at the end of April, as they did last year. Now, he’s not sure when that international travel will be feasible.

“I’m just happy to still be playing,” says Loree, who spent three seasons in the minors for the San Francisco Giants before he came to the CPBL. “What we see in MLB, the minors, Japan, Korea, Mexico, all currently not playing—just being able to say that in a couple of days from now, we’re going to have Opening Day, that’s pretty awesome.”

The CPBL doesn’t know how much time it will have as the only baseball in action. In the best-case scenario, it will be just a few weeks, but given the previous postponements around the world, it could easily be more. For now, at least, they’re the only ones on the diamond.

“You have a little extra to be thankful for, a little extra energy every day that you get to go to the field and do your job,” Woodall says. “Because you know that a lot of other guys aren’t able to do that.”