as far as anyone knows, the woman had always been a well-behaved housewife, calm and dignified in the manner of her people. It was not until her active pre-teen son joined the Little League that her emotions began to go out of control and finally led her one hot afternoon some weeks ago to brandish a dangerous implement at a full-grown man.
Her son's team was engaged in a close game in the regional playoffs when a teammate attempted to advance from second to third on a routine outfield fly. The centerfielder caught the ball and threw it to second, where the runner was doubled up, having left the bag a twinkling of an eye too soon. A mighty rhubarb ensued, with noisy assistance from the teams' adult rooting sections.
It was then that the housewife, armed with an umbrella, left her seat behind the bench, strode onto the diamond and struck a pose reminiscent of Zorro with his sword. She was already in fierce debate with the plate umpire when the true object of her displeasure, his second-base counterpart, wandered haplessly into her field of vision. She wheeled on him and began scoring near misses on his eyes, ears, nose and throat with the long chrome-plated tip of her umbrella.
"[Chinese characters]," she said, the weapon whistling swiftly past the ump's scalp.
August 18, 1974
"[Chinese characters]!" she added, just in case he thought she was kidding. Then Mrs. Tsai grabbed her little Pai-jew by his throwing arm and retreated with her umbrella held high, declaring as she faded into the crowd that there was no way a conscientious mother could let a good boy like Pai-jew play under these unfair circumstances.
This very American scene happened not in Kankakee or Keokuk but in Kaohsiung, a port city near the southern tip of the island of Taiwan. Nothing unusual about it, either. The only surprises were that a Chinese Little Leaguer could be inept enough to tag up too soon on a fly ball and that the umbrella woman didn't crack the umpire on the head. For in Taiwan the quality of Little League baseball is the best in the world—so decisively the best during the last five years that some Americans have charged the Chinese with cheating. The triumphs of their young players have made Taiwan as baseball-crazy as Brooklyn in the heyday of the Dodgers. It's easy to see why. Taiwan's often lopsided victories against foreign teams have been just about the only international triumphs for the Republic of China in an era during which it is being tossed ignominiously out of everything from the United Nations to the International Basketball Federation to make room for the People's Republic on the mainland.
The baseball mania will be at fever point next week when the Little League World Series is played at Williamsport, Pa. All three of the R.O.C.'s television networks plan to carry live satellite coverage and almost every one of Taiwan's 1.5 million TV sets is sure to be tuned in, even though the contests will start at 3 a.m. Taipei time. Newspapers will hold their presses in order to run game analyses in morning editions, and trains will delay departure so they can carry the papers into the hinterlands.
Almost certainly the news will be good, setting off another of the thunderous, predawn explosions of firecrackers and street celebrations that have marked every R.O.C. victory in the World Series since 1969. That year the Chinese won their first championship, an event that stunned no one more than the home folks since that was also the first season there had been formal Little League competition on the island. Except for 1970, when the Chinese won the Far East tournament but were bumped 3-2 by Nicaragua at Williamsport, Taiwan has not lost since.
Its victories in 1971 and 1972 were merely impressive; the 1973 win by the Tainan Giants was downright embarrassing. In the opener of that Series, 11-year-old Huang Ching-hui threw a perfect game at a team of U.S. military dependents from Bitburg (West Germany) Air Force Base and Taiwan won 18-0, even though it did nothing but bunt in its last two turns at bat. The Giants had more no-hit pitching, five home runs and 21 hits in their second-round 27-0 win over Tampa, Fla. Huang came back with yet another no-hitter against Tucson, Ariz. in the championship game, Taiwan scoring all its runs in the final three innings to take the title 12-0. In the three games, Taiwan outscored its opponents 57-0 and outhit them 43-0. The Giants had a team batting average of .417 and a team ERA of 0.00. They struck out 46 of the 56 batters who came up against them, while walking only two. And in the minor statistical categories, Taiwan was decidedly major league. Its opposition committed typical Little League totals of 13 errors, 10 wild pitches and 15 passed balls; Taiwan had one error and none of the other misplays. As a final insult, the only player who attempted to steal against the Giants was cut down at second base.
Combined with its 87-1 scoring margin over its five opponents in the Far East playoff preceding Williamsport, Taiwan's performance in the World Series seemed to confirm suspicions that it was not playing by the same rules as other countries. Certainly the crowds in Williamsport, which had favored past Chinese teams, thought so and began to harshly boo the Giants. Adult Little League volunteers on hand for the Series accused the Chinese of violating every stipulation in the rule book regarding the players' ages and the districting of leagues. One man even said in apparent seriousness that he thought the Taiwan team was composed of midget professionals hired by Chiang Kai-shek especially to humiliate the United States. The Little League's paid president, Peter J. McGovern, refused to pass judgment on the eligibility of Taiwan's players or the correctness of its organization. Shortly thereafter he quietly announced that he would send a committee to study the R.O.C.'s Little League program.
The investigators' report has never been released, but Roy Reiner, a past president of the Hong Kong Little League and one of the men sent to look into the Taiwan situation, says the infractions detected by the committee were largely the same ones found in most non-U.S. Little League organizations. No major violations were uncovered.
Little League rules require that a player be between nine and 12 years old when the season begins, and the most serious of the unsubstantiated violations charged against Taiwan at Williamsport was that its boys were overage. American coaches not only were surprised that the Tainan team performed like a bunch of 20-year-olds, they were startled that the Chinese players were for the first time the biggest in the Series and that several of the alleged 12-year-olds were taller than their coaches. The Giants were not unusual in that regard. Many Taiwanese youngsters are bigger than their parents, primarily because they have grown up eating more meat and dairy foods than any previous Chinese generation. And the coaches' complaints about size failed to take into account the performance of tiny Cheng Pai-sheng, the 4'11", 95-pound infielder who was the Giants' most impressive hitter with a .733 average and three homers.
In fact, the U.S. skeptics could have put the entire age question to rest if they had asked the Giants to show them the government ID cards the boys are required to carry at all times. As Reiner's committee found out, Chiang's China has one of the world's most thorough census and residency registration systems. Each child is issued a card upon entering school. The penalty for tampering with an ID is one year in jail, a sentence stiff enough to make Little League officials loth to fiddle with them. And Reiner discovered no indications that changes on ID cards were being made with the government's blessings.
The infractions found by the investigators pertained mostly to the size of districts and the use of schoolteachers as managers. The teams that finally make it through the district, state and regional playoffs to Williamsport are supposed to be made up of children from the same local league. For example, the players on last year's Tampa team were from that city's Belmont Heights area, and this season's Taiwan representatives are all from a league based in the east side of Kaohsiung. According to the rules, a district ideally should not encompass more than 15,000 people. And teachers who serve as managers or coaches are considered "professionals" by the Little League, which prefers that other volunteers, usually fathers of boys playing in the league, run the teams.
The rules on districting and managing were devised for small-town and suburban America and are usually broken or sidestepped in foreign countries and even in some large U.S. cities. In such places there are often not enough baseball-playing youngsters and almost invariably not enough money to support a league on the required population base. And foreign fathers generally have neither the time nor the inclination to become involved with children's baseball.
Taiwan's Little League officials were embarrassed by their lopsided win last year and distressed that the Americans felt a need to investigate. "I am sorry; we were too strong," Hsieh Kuo-cheng, the harassed-looking president of the island's baseball association, has apologized repeatedly. To placate Little League headquarters, the R.O.C. readily agreed to nearly double its number of districts to 41 this year and to curtail the use of teacher-managers. The Kaohsiung team that will appear in Williamsport this week is managed by a sporting-goods salesman and coached by a photographer. In fact, the Chinese apparently have gone beyond the rules to prove their good intentions. Huang, the perfect-game pitcher of last August's world champions, did not play this season, even though he was still eligible. Officials say an eye disease kept him off the diamond, but one well-informed source in Taiwan says Huang was held out because his family moved from Tainan to Taipei. The Chinese were concerned that if Huang turned up at Williamsport next week pitching for a different city, the U.S. would accuse them of moving their best players around in order to pack all of them in one district.
"Our report to Williamsport presented three possible solutions," Reiner says. "One was that they could kick out Taiwan for its violations, but that would have meant tossing out most of the Little League's other foreign members. Two was to allow them in international competition only once every two years, but again that would have meant applying the same rule to everyone else. Three was to find some way to beat them."
Wisely, Williamsport has chosen the last of these alternatives. Coming up with a way to do it next week may be less difficult because Taiwan is obeying the rules more closely. It may be further simplified since Huang will not be there pitching and the island's best active Little Leaguer, Tainan's extraordinary Shortstop-Pitcher Wang Ching-chung, will not be there hitting his long home runs. And it may even be possible because the Kaohsiung team that will represent Taiwan this year is probably not the island's best. But still it will not be easy, for the Chinese success is the result of things the Little League cannot—and probably would not care to—legislate against.
In the high hill country 25 kilometers and an entire culture away from the modern east coast city of Taitung, a slate monument the size of a small tombstone stands in the middle of a muddy school yard, THIS VILLAGE MADE BASEBALL GREAT read the gold characters etched into the slab, which is surrounded by life-sized metal silhouettes of a pitcher, a catcher and a batter mounted on corroding pipes. The hamlet, a cluster of about 50 shabby houses, most of them with thatched roofs, is called Hung Yeh—in English, Red Leaf.
The road to Red Leaf winds its un-paved way up the coast through tangerine groves, small villages-with two or three open-front stores, yangtao vines and pineapple fields. It is an obstacle course of razorlike shards of shale, abrupt inclines, hair-raising hairpin turns, rockslides and hub-deep quagmires passable during the rainy season only to off-the-road vehicles. Its traffic includes water buffalo, ox carts and vehicles whose drivers are disciples of Evel Knievel. The trip to Red Leaf is a tough one, and it's even tougher getting out.
Most of the village's inhabitants are Taiwanese aborigines, people of Malay stock who sailed to the island hundreds of years before the Chinese, Japanese or Europeans—all of whom began taking an interest in Taiwan at roughly the same time—ever settled there. Like most conquered native peoples, the aborigines have been left with the worst land—the most vertical mountain acres—and little money. Many of them still live by a barter economy, and rare is the aboriginal son who manages to escape his lather's life of subsistence farming.
One who did get away was C.K. Yang, who came out of a village not far from Red Leaf to attend UCLA and finish a close second to Rafer Johnson in the 1960 Olympic decathlon. Yang was Taiwan's most admired athletic hero until 1968, when Red Leaf's team set off the baseball boom that has yielded Taiwan's only international sports championships.
Baseball has been played in Taiwan for about 50 years, arriving there courtesy of the Japanese who controlled the island from 1895 to 1945. Many of the diamonds built early in that period were plowed up to grow crops during World War II; this was fine with the Chiang government which reacquired Taiwan for China in 1945 and moved there in 1949. Baseball was certainly not the mainlanders' game, and if they did nothing to discourage it, they did less than nothing to encourage it.
It is more than a little ironic that the Chiang government, which still includes almost no Taiwan-born citizens in the upper echelons of its armed forces or administration, has had to rely on the people who inhabited the island before 1949 for its most conspicuous moments of international glory. The pre-'49 citizens and their children, who constitute 85% of Taiwan's population of 15.5 million, have never held any particular affection for the post-'49 group. There had been peace, relative prosperity and corruption-free government under the Japanese in the years immediately preceding World War II. When the mainland Chinese returned in 1945, they brought with them a tradition of government by squeeze and a decidedly colonial attitude toward the Taiwanese. In 1947 the island's people rioted against the new administration, and Chiang's soldiers put down the disturbances by killing between 10,000 and 20,000 Taiwanese in a two-week period.
That incident has never been forgotten—or forgiven. It has been difficult to bridge the gap between the two groups because Taiwan was not involved in the political jousts that marked the first half of this century on the mainland. Certainly there have been no grass-roots movements to bring back the Japanese, but there also has been little sincere enthusiasm below the highest levels for returning to the mainland. According to most observers, what the Taiwanese would like is independence. Free Taiwan groups are active in Japan, Europe and the U.S.
Oddly, the baseball-playing sons of just those independence-minded pre-'49 people were among the few sources of ready solace when the change in America's China policy left the Chiang government in shocked disbelief.
There is some consolation for the R.O.C. in seeing Taiwanese teams knock America's block off at its own game. Which helps to explain the long parades through downtown Taipei that have become an August tradition, with the players standing like war heroes in jeeps. Prime Minister Chiang Ching-kuo has received the boys in the Executive Yuan (Cabinet). There have been scholarships for Series winners and Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang have congratulated the winning teams in person.
There would have been no such affairs had it not been for small boys like those in Red Leaf who learned baseball using sticks for bats and stones for balls, and a few Taiwan-born, Japanese-educated adults. Between them they kept the game alive on the island in the postwar years.
One of the men was Hsieh Kuo-cheng, who played right field for his Taiwanese primary school in the '30s and later attended Waseda University, the Notre Dame of Japan's favorite college sport, baseball. In 1948 Hsieh and 14 other fans contributed $200 apiece to start the Taiwan baseball association. There were about half a dozen men's teams and an equal number for boys using the island's four remaining diamonds.
The game grew slowly for the next 20 seasons and Hsieh, who has been head of the association since its inception, remembers times when the national tournament was staged simply by laying down the bases in a city park. And little boys did not play the real game at all. Baseballs were too expensive. Until less than a year before their first win at Williamsport, Taiwanese kids played exclusively with rubber balls.
In 1968 Red Leaf won the island's rubber-ball championship and with it the right to face a visiting team of Japanese youngsters who had agreed to a series using Taiwan's ball. Red Leaf's victory, one of the few by a Taiwanese team over Japan in any sport, was cause for island-wide celebration. The losers compounded their defeat by leaving behind several dozen baseballs for their hosts to practice with and suggesting to Hsieh that his country join the Little League. The idea turned out to be a grand one for the slight, bespectacled Hsieh, who has been able to capitalize on his reputation as "Mr. Baseball." In one of the island's rare "national" elections, he ran a campaign using literature designed to resemble baseballs and became one of the very few Taiwan-born men ever to win a seat in the Legislative Yuan, the R.O.C.'s equivalent in prestige, if not in power, of the U.S. Senate. For Japan, which used to have a team at Williamsport almost every year and twice won the World Series, the suggestion was less fortunate. It has been losing to Taiwan in the Far East regional tournament ever since.
The baseball craze that Red Leaf's win set in motion has come back to haunt the village. Except for an overgrown diamond, the stone marker, the silhouettes and the plans for a $13,000 monument to baseball that the country plans to build there, no trace of the game remains in the village. The formalities of establishing a Little League program and the expense of all the Japanese-made Isono baseballs that would be needed to keep it going are too much for Red Leaf. Only three boys from the village still play. They must walk far down the mountain to the town of Taoy√ºan to do so.
Baseball has carried another of Red Leaf's young sons much further. Yu Hung-kai has broad, sloping shoulders, a thick neck and a massive chest; were he not barely 5½ feet tall, he would be a copper-colored replica of the young Mickey Mantle. Yu was raised in Wulin, a sub-hamlet of Red Leaf, but this cheerful 15-year-old with his black hair cut in the severe Marine Corps style is already a world traveler. Yu was on the rubber-ball team that defeated Japan and he was given two of those precious baseballs. He used them well. By the end of the next summer he was at Williamsport playing third base for Taiwan's first world champs. In the third inning of the opening game, Yu singled, stole second and third, and came home on a hit to score the first of the many runs that the Chinese have pushed across on that Pennsylvania diamond. Last August he was back in the U.S. playing center field at Gary, Ind., home of the Senior League World Series. Senior League is an extension of the Little League system for boys 13 to 15. Taiwan has had a team at Gary the past two summers and, of course, won both times. Last year's club did not allow a run in its three-game sweep to the title.
Yu's two appearances on championship teams have made him a double hero back home. He no longer lives up in the mountains; instead he boards at Taipei's prestigious Huahsing school. Yu was sent there on a scholarship from Madame Chiang and it was in her office at the school, of which she is the board chairman, that he was recently interviewed.
"Sure, baseball has changed my life," he said. "My brother is one of the few players left in Red Leaf, but he'll never have a chance to come to this school. I wouldn't have either if we hadn't won in Williamsport. It's changed my whole environment. I'm learning things and meeting people I never would've known. And I'll have more opportunities in the future. I probably would've grown up to be a poor farmer in the hills like my father if I hadn't played baseball."
Surprisingly, Yu did not touch a ball this spring or summer, even though his ambition is to become a professional player, preferably in the U.S. (America's first Taiwanese pro, 24-year-old Pitcher Tan Shin-ming, has signed with the San Francisco Giants and is playing for their Fresno farm team. He certainly will not be the last.) This was Yu's ninth-grade year and, like many other R.O.C. adolescents, he gave up all extracurricular activities to study for the tough, highly competitive entrance examinations to upper middle school. That alone says plenty about the seriousness of Chinese youngsters. Because Yu and most players on the island have applied similar intensity to baseball, they can easily afford a year off from training.
"I can remember getting up at five in the morning and walking down the mountain to play before school in Red Leaf," he says. "We usually had ball games in the afternoon, too, and sometimes we'd forget about classes and play straight through the day. The coach was around only half the time, so I guess it could be said that the boys on the first team that beat Japan were about half taught and half self-taught. I know we taught ourselves to use the real baseball. At first I was afraid of it, not so much of being hit by a pitch as of being stung by a grounder. Adapting wasn't too tough, though, once I got used to the lower bounces. And I liked hitting the baseball right away because it goes farther than the rubber one.
"After we won the '69 Series and I came to school here, practice became more organized. We still play a lot among ourselves during the off-season except when it's winter, but that's not as tough as the spring when the coaches are looking on. Every day I get about 40 swings in batting practice. Then they hit about 40 flies to each of the outfielders and 40 grounders to each infielder. That's the minimum, I'd say. If you make a couple of errors, they might end up hitting you 80. Until this spring I practiced like that every day during the baseball season for the last four years."
Not all young Taiwanese players drill as rigorously as the boys at the Huahsing school, but without question almost all of them practice longer and harder than their American counterparts. It is an element of the Chinese life-style, in sports, politics, education and in other things as well.
"I don't remember any kids playing baseball when I was a teen-ager there in the late '50s, but at the Taipei American School we competed against the local boys in soccer and volleyball," says Mike McGrath, who attended high school in Taipei as a U.S. military dependent, returned there during his own stint in the armed forces and is now wrapping up a doctorate in Chinese studies at Princeton. "They really worked their butts off. We'd train every day for an hour. They always practiced more than that and did more homework, too. They invariably beat us.
"It wasn't the longer practices alone that did it. They also applied themselves better in training. It is simply that their lives are more regimented and diligence is probably more highly prized. The Chinese have—and always have had—something very much like the Calvinist ethic, except they leave out the part about ceaseless quest for profit."
In Little League the effects of that intensity are enhanced by the fact that young Taiwanese ballplayers rarely participate in other competitive sports, by the subtropical climate that allows them to practice year-round and by the public mania that has been spurred on by the government. The game has become an intrinsic part of the island's psyche, holding out the promise of fame to boys who otherwise would have little hope of rising above the anonymous welter of Chinese society. For a baseball purist the product of all these forces is a joy to behold.
The hitter, his translucent ecru skin shining in the afternoon sun, approaches the right-hand batter's box. With an exaggerated nod of his head and a quick two-fingered salute he greets the white-gloved umpire and steps in. He grinds his nylon cleats into the damp clay next to the plate, grips his purple aluminum bat four inches up from the knob, takes a few short level practice swings and settles into a compact stance to await the pitch.
The pitcher, also a righthander, stands on the rubber and looks in for a sign. He shakes off his catcher once, then rocks into a no-windup delivery and fires at a target set tight in on the batter's hands. The pitch is a fastball.
The particulars of this scene are repeated over and over in Taiwan Little League games. From the courtesy to the umpire to the fastball designed to jam the batter there is a marked similarity in technique among virtually all the island's players, including right-handedness. It seems there are not many Chinese lefties, at least not many of them who play baseball. This fact has become a source of some comfort for Taiwan's international rivals, who have a hunch the world champs can be had by a left-handed curveballer because they rarely see one. There is some substance to this notion since two years ago Hong Kong was being thoroughly bombed in the Asian playoffs when it brought in a lefty who shut out the Taiwanese for a couple of innings with off-speed pitches. In 1973's final World Series game, Tucson's left-handed breaking-bailer Mike Fimbers held Taiwan scoreless for three innings, before a combination of a three-run Taiwan rally and an asthma attack knocked him out after the fourth.
Aside from the right-handed proclivities of its players, there is little else in the Taiwanese style and, particularly, in its execution that gives hope to boys from other countries. Home-run hitters abound on the island (during the 1973 World Series Taiwan practiced on a full-sized field where the fences were 100 feet farther out than they are in Little League; several batters were seen driving balls out of that park), but home-run swings do not. Every hitter chokes up and uses a short stroke: batting practice consists almost entirely of line drives to center. Naturally, Taiwan has good hitters and bad ones. The best of them—the ones who make it to Williamsport—rarely loft their hits. They wrist low liners deep to the outfield and beyond, and some have even mastered the technique of taking the outside pitch to right field, an extraordinary bit of sophistication for 12-year-olds.
Taiwan's pitchers are probably no faster than their American counterparts and it is unlikely that their breaking stuff curves more. The difference is control. Taiwan's batters fearlessly dig in at the plate because they are rarely scared out of their uniforms by the bizarre deliveries served up to U.S. Little Leaguers. To the contrary, Chinese pitchers usually hit the target instead of the batter. In the case of fastballs, that means popping the pitch in on the batter's hands; with a curve, it means dropping it in the strike zone, low and away, it is a predictable pattern, but an effective one with pitchers who are able to hit the corners. Lanky Lin Wen-hsiang, who is likely to start Taiwan's opener at Williamsport, says he never is satisfied merely to put the ball over the middle of the plate. He always works around the edges, even when he is behind on the count. And, in another neat bit of sophistication, he will unhesitatingly throw a curve on 3 and 2.
Last year's mix of no-hit pitching and thunderous hitting has tended to obscure the fact that in other Series—and probably this one, too, should Taiwan win again—the R.O.C.'s triumphs have been based primarily on superior defense. Misjudged flyballs, wild throws, passed balls and grounders bouncing unimpeded through infielders" legs are routine in Little League, except when the Taiwanese are playing. Some R.O.C. coaches maintain that their boys field better because they are quicker-handed than the children of other races. There does not seem to be any scientific evidence to bear this out, but it certainly looks that way on the baseball diamond.
Taiwanese outfielders simply glide back under flies and catch them. Infielders charge grounders, keeping their bodies low and squarely in front of the balls, pick them up cleanly with their hands and then carefully plant themselves before throwing to first. But as good as the shortstops and centerfielders are, they do not equal the catchers' startling ability to play beyond their years.
Passed balls and wild pitches are almost as much a part of the average Little League game as balls and strikes. It is not unusual in America to find that every team in a league uses its biggest—or, at least, its fattest—kid behind the plate, in apparent hope that the boy's body will stop some of the pitches his hands cannot cope with.
In Taiwan the catcher is most often one of the smallest—and quickest—players on the team, and a small Chinese 12-year-old is apt to stand less than 4'10" and weight under 90 pounds. He is the most boyish of the boy players, an aspect he exaggerates by wearing his supporter and protective cup outside his trousers so that they bunch up his pants and give the impression he is wearing a diaper. He performs his grimy task with a body language that suggests youthful ebullience and in a style best described as early Manny Sanguillen.
The Taiwanese catcher wiggles slowly into his crouch. Once he gets there he sits low and loose on his haunches, content, it appears, to remain in this pose for hours. He bounces gaily as he sends out his complex series of signs. Then, for the moment it takes the pitcher to swing through his delivery and the ball to reach the plate, the little receiver becomes a man. With runners on base, he is braced up firm in a wide stance; if he has called for one of those low, outside curves, his bottom is higher than his nose, which is tucked behind his mitt as he sets a low target. When the pitch arrives, he does not field it with his body or with a wild snatch of his glove, but smoothly with his hands, as if he were caressing a feather from the air.
Runners do not advance on Chinese catchers. The last two times that Taiwan's best teams, Tainan and Kaohsiung, met this year the games were pressure-filled, nationally televised affairs. The three catchers who played in those games did not allow a stolen base or a passed ball, even though both staffs were loaded with pitchers whose wild excesses usually came in the form of curves that bounced into the dirt of the left-hand batter's box. It is a catcher's most difficult play—he must scurry far to his right and then backhand the ball on a short hop—and the three receivers made the play frequently and flawlessly.
Among all these nimble outfielders, wide-ranging infielders and catchers who can actually catch, there was one player this season who was clearly the best. His name is Wang Ching-chung. Last year as an 11-year-old he played shortstop, second base and right field for the Tainan Giants. During the Asian regional tournament he set a Taiwan record with three home runs in one game. Wang then returned home to train for his trip to the United States, a regimen that consisted mainly of going to a Western restaurant to learn how to use a knife and fork. He quickly became proficient at feeding himself steak, and it turned out that he was just as adept at eating up American pitching. In his initial plate appearance in Williamsport, after the Bitburg boys had put two of his teammates on base with errors, Wang hit a 2-2 delivery to the opposite field and over the fence to give Taiwan a 3-0 lead.
It was in commemoration of that home run that the students and teachers at the Hsiao-hsin school, where Wang completed the sixth grade early this summer, gave him the large wooden plaque that hangs outside the front door of his family's little blue farmhouse on the outskirts of Tainan, the old capital of Taiwan. The gold characters on it read: ONE HIT AND YOU WIN THE GAME. NOW YOU ARE A PERSON THE WHOLE WORLD KNOWS.
Wang is a lean but sturdy boy, tall for his age although not unusually so. He has a strong square chin and surprisingly wide eyes for a Chinese. His grin is ready and broad, and he gestures frequently with his hands and head in a manner more Italian than Taiwanese. In the United States he would easily qualify as an introvert; compared to other Chinese pre-adolescents, he is gregarious.
The boy is the eighth and youngest child of Taiwan-born Wang Chi-chen and his wife Wang Tsai. They are in their 50s and neither is bigger than their 5'4", 114-pound son. Both have skin badly shriveled by the sun and a mouthful of gold teeth. For many years Wang Chi-chen worked in a noodle factory. Now his two eldest boys have jobs, and in the customary Chinese way the father has retired—if growing several crops a year of sweet potatoes can be considered retirement—to let his sons support him. By the current standard of living in Taiwan, the Wangs are poor but not destitute.
They live up a muddy alley that branches off the main road leading from Tainan through the aptly named hamlet of Tucheng, which means Dirt City. Not far down the narrow street, past a huge puddle and a small tan house, sits an unpainted building, its once-red roof tiles blackened, buckled and in many cases broken. Until two years ago this was the Wangs' house. Now it is occupied by a couple of pigs, a few chickens, a family of black ducks and sacks of dried, shredded sweet potatoes used to feed the hogs.
Behind the old building and across a concrete slab where rice and yams are dried is the family's new home. It has two small bedrooms, a tiny dining area, a storeroom full of more sweet potatoes and, in the middle, an open space that is part temple, part living room and mostly Cooperstown.
a red and gold altar adorned with pictures of Buddha and the God of Mercy takes up most of one wall and there are three pieces of furniture, two rattan chairs and a table. Except for one more huge bag of dried sweet potatoes parked in a corner, the rest of the room is all baseball memorabilia. Two glass cases mounted on the walls are crammed with a hundred or more medals, trophies and plaques. Mixed among them are Wang's own souvenirs, including a mechanical fish he bought in Japan, a small replica of the Washington Monument and a baseball autographed by the great Japanese slugger, Oh Saduhara, whose mother is Taiwanese and whose Chinese name happens to be Wang. Completing the decor are framed newspaper articles and brightly colored silk banners that ring the room. The banners, except for one in orange and black extolling the San Francisco Giants, are a traditional way of sending congratulations. They are embroidered with the donors' names, important politicians and businessmen among them, and such slogans as NEVER LOSE and HE KNOWS HOW TO ATTACK.
He certainly does. Playing for Tainan's Fu Cheng League All-Stars in this year's regional and national playoffs, Wang was invariably the best boy on the field. He is a slick shortstop, a pitcher with a crisp fastball and perhaps the best curve on the island and an awesome hitter. In one game during the national finals at Taipei, Wang repeated his feat of a year ago by hitting three homers in one game as Tainan ripped Hsinchu 31-0. The first homer was a three-run shot in the second inning that cleared the left-field fence by perhaps 75 feet. The second, also good for three runs, went out of the park on a line to left center. The last was even more impressive, a high drive to straightaway center that landed about 40 feet beyond the barrier and drove in two more runs. It was a prodigious performance even for a player who had come to Taipei with a .480 batting average, 14 home runs in 81 at bats, a .975 fielding percentage and six wins as a pitcher.
Despite all the awards he has won, the fan mail he receives, the tumultuous welcome, which drew 30,000 people to the airport when the team returned from Williamsport last August, the pandering by high government officials and the attention he has gotten from the press, Wang has kept the self-effacing manner expected in a society that brooks no displays of self-esteem, particularly from children. Even the frank adulation of his classmates at the 10,000-student Hsiao-hsin school, where he averages 99% in his six courses, has not turned his head. Wang learned the game there, practicing in the school's huge grassless center courtyard, breaking a few windows in the process. When he unexpectedly returned to the school wearing his pale blue double-knit uniform one rainy day when he was scheduled to be off at the regional playoffs in Kaohsiung 40 kilometers away, the pupils in his boys-only classroom rose and loudly applauded him as he moved to his seat in the back row.
"Why do you think you defeated the Americans so easily?" Wang had been asked a few minutes earlier.
"We were very lucky, I think," he said.
"And what about your own game? Why have you become so good?"
"I try to practice hard, but mostly I think I have much good fortune," said Wang, who like most Chinese players did not know his batting average and could only guess at the number of his home runs and pitching victories.
"Do you think your team will have a chance to visit Williamsport again this year?"
"Maybe not," he said, even though Tainan was favored to win the island's title once more. Then for the first time he volunteered a slightly boastful remark about Taiwan baseball, perhaps because his answer had nothing to do with him personally. "There are so many good teams here. I guess we have a chance, but remember that last year we were very lucky to win our own championship. In the regional tournament here in the south the Giants lost 3-1 to Kaohsiung. The rules allow the first two finishers in each region to go to Taipei for the national playoff. There we had more very good fortune and were able to defeat Kaohsiung 2-1 in the deciding game. After that we played games only against other countries and the closest score we had was 4-0 with Japan. I think that last year there were four teams in Taiwan that could have won the World Series."
"He's right," grunted Wang's stolid friend and teammate Chen Chinghsiung, opening his mouth for the first time. He is a massive (5'7", 154 pounds) outfielder-pitcher who was a substitute on last year's title winners and captained this year's Tainan team. Unlike Wang, Chen appears to be an early maturer, a boy who uses his size to dominate his contemporaries in Little League. For this year at least, Chen's statistics were as good as Wang's and only his lack of a curveball and running speed prevented him from being the shortstop's equal.
It was Chen, a hard-throwing side-armer, whom Tainan's Manager Wu Ching-san decided to start against Kaohsiung in the pivotal game in the southern region, where Taiwan's best baseball is played. 'r> the top of the first inning, after a walk and a single by Wang, Chen blasted a homer over the left-field fence in Kaohsiung's new $350,000 ball park. The hit provided the only runs he needed as he pitched a one-hitter, Tainan winning 8-0.
Not many fans in the crowd of 15,000 at the stadium or in the huge television audience were deceived by the outcome. There was grand strategy afoot here. It seemed everyone in Taiwan knew that neither team had started its best pitcher. Certainly most spectators considered Wang the strongest member of Tainan's staff, and there was no question that Lin Wen-hsiang, who had not appeared for Kaohsiung, might well be the best pitcher on the island.
When the scene shifted to Taipei for the decisive game of the national playoffs, Tainan's Wu had no choice but to overlook Wang and start the boy who had nearly no-hit Kaohsiung two weeks earlier. And Kaohsiung Manager Shau Chang-kueng was not about to keep Lin, who was described as "the Secret Weapon" during the fortnight of press speculation that preceded the game, in reserve any longer.
"We're a young team, we've got six 11-year-olds among our 14 players," said Shau. "We can't afford to get in a slugging match with Tainan, so I had to look for an edge in pitching. Last year our best pitcher beat Tainan in the regionals, but in the national playoffs the Giants had the advantage of already having seen his stuff and were able to defeat him. This time in the regional I knew we were sure of a trip to Taipei because we would finish second to the Tainan boys, even if we lost. So I saved Lin until now. This way they don't know any of his secrets."
Chen certainly had lost his mystery for Kaohsiung's batters. In the top of the opening inning he got the first two hitters on grounders to short, one a slow roller up the middle that Wang cut off in front of second base and the other a hard shot into the hole on which he made an excellent backhand play. But Chen's particular run of good fortune ended when Lin, batting third, singled sharply to center. A double, walk and single by the next three batters gave Kaohsiung a 2-0 lead and Wang was brought in to replace Chen. His first pitch to Kaohsiung's seventh hitter was a fastball for a called strike. His next pitch, a curve, bounced far in front and to the left of the plate. Tainan's catcher lunged for the ball, but it was beyond his range and another run scored on the wild pitch. Wang eventually got that hitter on a grounder to third and Tainan was out of the inning. He would pitch a no-hitter the rest of the way.
Shau now had the edge he had hoped for, but it very nearly disappeared in the bottom of the first when the Secret Weapon looked like a dud. Lin is lean and tall (5'7") with very long legs that twist and whirl as he goes through his slow windup. Shau says within earshot of the boy, "Ah, he's not so fast." And he isn't, compared to Nolan Ryan. Matched against other 12-year-olds, however, baby-faced Lin is lightning quick and an excellent hitter as well. In 12 tournament games this year he averaged .551 with seven homers.
Tainan's batters seemed unimpressed with all that. The first two singled and then Wang hit a line drive to the base of the fence in left center for a double and an RBI. Following an intentional walk to clean-up batter Chen and the first of Lin's nine strikeouts, Tainan's sixth batter got a base on balls to force in a run. That made the score 3-2, but from then until the sixth and last inning Lin did not allow a runner to reach base. Wang doubled into the left-field corner to open the sixth and again Chen was walked intentionally, even though it meant putting the potential winning run on. Working calmly, Lin struck out the next two batters. The third batter was retired on a hard one-hopper to second and Kaohsiung was an upset winner.
Predictably, it went right on winning through the five games of the Asian regionals last month at Manila and earned Taiwan the right to represent that part of the world in Williamsport for the sixth straight year. Lin started and won Kaohsiung's three games against its toughest opposition—South Korea, Japan and the Philippines—surrendering only three runs along the way. He also slugged four of the tournament's 22 home runs, and Kaohsiung's leadoff hitter. Center-fielder Kuo Yao-tsong, hit six more as Taiwan outscored its five opponents 66-6.
Whether Kaohsiung will be able to keep Taiwan's victory streak alive at Williamsport may depend on its development of some new secret weapons, such as a good second pitcher to back up Lin and better hitting than the team showed back home. And Shau's youngsters will have to demonstrate they can take tension the way Taiwan's other World Series representatives have. The pressure that Little League has been accused of subjecting American boys to does not remotely equal that borne by Taiwan's kids. They come 10,000 miles to play in a strange country with unfamiliar food, weird eating utensils and fans who boo them. But more than that, they carry with them extraordinary pressures from home. In 1968, when Taiwan lost in the first round at Williamsport, advertisers canceled their TV sponsorship of its subsequent appearances in the consolation bracket of that World Series, and the manager was—and still is—the object of severe criticism.
The island's ego is even more tender now, and a loss this time around would be markedly less well received. As the umpire in Kaohsiung can testify, the Republic of China is jumping with umbrella women these days.