You can tell a Merv Yoshimoto team by the way the players behave after striking out. Yoshimoto, an office-machine repairman out of Oahu, Hawaii, is the manager of Pearl City, which along with Tai Chung, the inevitable entry from Taiwan, made the final of the 42nd Little League World Series last Saturday in Williamsport, Pa. When the Hawaiians whiffed, as they did Saturday with regularity and gusto, did they throw their equipment like big leaguers? Did they sulk and bait the home plate umpire, the way the Saudi Arabian team did? Not Merv's kids. They hustled to the bench like darn good sports. Hustling back to the bench sends a message to the opponent: I refuse to dwell on my failure; I resolve to do better next time.
Problem was, by the middle innings of Pearl City's 10-0 loss to Tai Chung, Hawaiian strikeout victims were no longer just hustling back to the dugout. They were sprinting. They could barely see—let alone get their aluminum bats on—the aspirins that righthander Yu Chenlung was throwing. Meanwhile, home plate umpire Jack Cole called so many strikes that his right arm no doubt got sore.
Chenlung, he of the formidable physique and precise control, walked one, struck out 10 and yielded just one hit: Centerfielder Chris Yoshimoto, the Pearl City manager's son, beat out a bunt in the first inning. Chenlung had two hits and scored two runs in the game, and during the week established himself as the dominant Ping-Pong player in the "International Grove," the players' compound among the trees.
Since 1969, teams from Taiwan have won this tournament 12 times, and after Tuesday morning, Jim Arnold had a pretty good inkling it would soon be 13. Arnold, manager of the Andover, Mass., team that had won the Eastern Region, awoke at the crack of dawn. "I go outside," he said, "and what do I see but the Taiwanese doing conditioning drills—he [manager Lai Tayuan] has got 'em sprinting up hills."
Before breakfast the Taiwanese took 100 or so form swings. After eating they practiced for two hours. Enjoying your summer vacation, guys? After every pitch in the game itself, Chenlung and catcher Lee Chiachi looked to the dugout for the signal for the next one. The Tai Chung players run the bases like the St. Louis Cardinals, they throw to the right man, and they don't miss signals.
Most Tai Chung team members attend the same elementary school in Taipei, the capital city, and Lai happens to be a phys ed instructor. Like most Little League managers in Taiwan, he has received instruction and baseball certification in Japan. This is a bit different from the custom in the U.S., where Dad sometimes volunteers because he feels guilty about not spending enough time with Junior.
Sparkling defensively for the losers was rightfielder Jason Adaro, who twice robbed Chenlung of extra-base hits. With one out in the second and runners on second and third, Jason dived on the warning track to make a snow-cone catch of Chenlung's line drive. Chiachi tagged up and tried to score all the way from second but was nailed by relay man Reid Numata's strike from shallow right.
"He [Chiachi] didn't even look for a signal," marveled Arnold. "He was tagging all the way. In that situation, that is what they are taught to do. And it took a perfect throw to get him. That's how far ahead of everyone else they are."
In Williamsport, yes. Back home in Taiwan, according to Lai, his team is not the best. "We were lucky to make it," he says.
And they were lucky to make it past Curundu, Panama, the Latin American champs, to the semifinals. Curundu had the Taiwanese down 4-0 in the final inning of Tuesday's game but could not finish them. With two outs, shortstop Chen Juicheng singled in the game-winner. The Hawaiians, regarded by most as the third-best U.S. team in Williamsport, behind Andover and Spring, Texas, had used up all their miracles making the finals, scoring three runs in the sixth to edge Tulsa on Wednesday, and then accepting two gift-wrapped runs—the result of wild pitches—in the second inning against the Texans on Thursday.
On Saturday the Tai Chung kids, who might have sent even Orel Hershiser to an early shower, would have scored more than 10 times had they not stranded more runners than usual. They came into the game batting .447 for the tournament, to Pearl City's .225. First baseman Chen Weichih, who has a breathtaking stroke and a newly formed yen for hot dogs, went 4 for 4—including a three-run homer—to finish the week 8 for 10.
"What I want to know is, what happens to these guys next?" asked ABC's Jim Palmer. "Where do they disappear to?" Alas, Taiwan has no professional baseball.
After his complete-game win, Chenlung stood at the fence at the edge of the grove and with smiles, giggles and sign language communicated with a group of native lasses who admired his presence more than his fastball. Finally, one of the volunteers pried him away, saying, "Sorry, girls, he's got to shower and get ready for a banquet. Maybe he'll be back next year." Chenlung, who is 12, will not. His country most certainly will.