"It is fitting that we should hold the young in awe."
This is an article from the Aug. 19, 1991 issue
Light showers, known to the Chinese as plum rain, fell during the night, but they did nothing to relieve the sweltering temperatures that, on this July Sunday, will make Taipei, Taiwan, the hottest city in East Asia. It's early yet, just past eight in the morning, but already the heat has come in waves to Taipei Stadium, and so have the fathers. They are a sport-shirted, discomforted lot, pacing, puffing feverishly on cigarettes, perspiring freely and proselytizing furiously. To amplify their thoughts on themes ranging from how to throw a slider to how to hit one, some of them have seen fit to put on gloves and pick up baseballs. Receiving their throws are their sons, small boys in red-white-and-blue uniforms who keep a respectful silence, throw harder than their papas and hit nothing but ringing line drives when they are called for batting practice.
You wouldn't know it from their calm faces, but in three hours these boys could be national heroes. Theirs is the uniform of the Da Ruan Primary School baseball team, from the city of Taichung, and at nine they will take on Li-Jen Primary School, from Tainan, to determine the Taiwanese Little League champion and, in effect, the best team of 11- and 12-year-old baseball players on earth.
True, there would still be the Far East championship in early August in Guam, against teams from six other Asian countries, and then, should the Taiwanese team win there, the eight-team Little League World Series from Aug. 20 to 24 in Williamsport, Pa. But in more years than not, the Sunday morning game in Taipei has offered Taiwanese players their stiffest challenge. In the 21 years Taiwan has participated in Little League baseball, teams from this island slightly larger than Maryland, with a population (20 million) that is less than a sixth of Japan's, have won the World Series 14 times. In the 1990 final, the San-Hua team of Tainan shrugged off Shippensburg, Pa., 9-0, to give Taiwan its fourth win in the past five years.
"At the time, I felt those American kids don't play seriously," says Wu Chunliang, 17, who shut out Tucson 12-0 in the '86 final. "They don't concentrate. They're having fun. We really play baseball. It comes from ourselves. If we lose, there must have been something wrong."
At Taipei Stadium the children remain utterly composed amid the heat—paternal and otherwise—even as they exchange bows with their opponents and begin the game of a lifetime. Not so self-possessed are their fans, many of whom awakened before daybreak to drive the two hours from Taichung or the four hours from Tainan. With Taichung righthander Pan Chia-chen's first pitch they begin waving flags, whistling, singing, chanting niceties like "Shieh!" ("You're finished!") and banging on the two huge red Chinese drums carted in for the occasion.
Chia-chen is a tall, well-proportioned 12-year-old with strong legs and a placid countenance that he retains even after Tainan takes a quick 2-0 lead. When Chia-chen retakes the mound to open the second inning, however, it becomes apparent why he has won every one of the 20-odd games he has pitched for Da Ruan over the past year. Mixing curves that break like hearts with a 75-mph fastball, he begins disposing of Tainan hitters in bunches. Through four innings Chia-chen has nine strikeouts.
With the game tied 2-2 in the fifth, Taichung's muscular shortstop, Tsen Tse-fang, hits the ball so hard to left that it wedges into the chain-link fence and he is halted at second with a ground rule double. Chia-chen fouls off two bunt attempts—"Ta-ma-deh!" ("Bull——!") scorn the fans—and hits a grounder to the right side that moves Tse-fang over and lands Chia-chen safe when the Tainan first baseman is handcuffed. Chia-chen steals second on the next pitch and then follows Tse-fang across the plate on catcher Lin Chung-chun's single up the middle to make the score 4-2. "The game's over," says an elderly Tainan fan, who pulls out chopsticks and tucks in to a box of cold noodles.
Not quite. In the sixth and final inning, with a Tainan runner on first and nobody out, Chia-chen fields a ground ball and fires to Tse-fang, who gets the force at second but is prevented from turning the double play by the base runner, who comes in spikes high. Tse-fang throws the ball down, hitting the Tainan player in the back, and then collapses in pain. Eventually he is helped to his feet, and he stays in the game. A murmur of disgust courses through the stands. Drums beat ominously, but Chia-chen is unfazed. He takes care of the last two batters himself, and the Taichung side of the stadium explodes in a blaze of firecrackers.
Taichung's coach, a slight, wiry man with thick glasses named Chang Chun-rang, is festooned with flowers and tossed in the air by his players. Tse-fang is led over to the Tainan bench, where a cluster of livid fans has gathered. "You were rude! Apologize!" they scream at him. "You must say you are sorry." Tse-fang dutifully shakes hands with the Tainan base runner, and the fans burst into applause. Tse-fang then rejoins his teammates, who are posing together for photographs behind a silken blue banner emblazoned with a golden dragon, the ancient Chinese symbol of strength and prosperity.
Taiwan has become one of the world's wealthiest nations by transforming itself from a tropical afterthought into an island of industry. Modern riches came with strict attendance to ancient principles, most prominently The Analects of Confucius, the revered moralist who died in 479 B.C. and is taught in every Taiwanese school. "Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man's character," said the Master.
Such discipline and the Confucian ideal of merit, which says that anyone can achieve success if he works hard enough, have much to do with the Taiwanese children's eminence in baseball. "If there is any secret, it is that our kids are more obedient and diligent," said Hsieh Kuocheng, the father of Taiwan Little League, in 1977. At Da Ruan Primary School, which went on to win the Far East championship to qualify for the Little League World Series, the players practice several hours a day, month after month. Everybody participates in flip drills, runs laps around the field, shags during batting practice and never, ever fusses.
But what becomes of them later? What happens to these extraordinary youngsters when they outgrow their Little League jerseys? In fact, their branch roads have been many.
Baseball was brought to Taiwan by the Japanese, who occupied the island for 50 years beginning in 1895. But as anyone in Taiwan can tell you, the country's baseball tradition really started in 1968, when a team of aborigine children from the town of Red Leaf, in the maple-dappled mountains outside the city of Taitung, swept three games from Wakayama, the world champion Japanese Little League team, in a friendship series, shutting them out each time. The Taiwanese were ecstatic. The conquerors had been vanquished by a group of young players descended from the island's first inhabitants.
The next year Taiwan sent its own team to Williamsport. The Golden Dragons, largely stocked with aborigine players, brought the island its first championship in any kind of international athletic competition. Upon their return, these poor mountain children, who had learned to play the game by hitting peach pits with bats they fashioned from the branches of guava trees, were treated to an eight-hour victory parade in Taipei and an audience with President Chiang Kai-shek.
Sitting in a cramped, musty house down an alley two blocks from Taitung Prison, Yu Hong-kai, the Red Leaf and Golden Dragon third baseman of those years and the only person to play for both teams, is clutching the youngest of his three sons in one cabbage-sized palm and a Long Life Mild cigarette in the other. "We had only one pair of sport shoes," says Yu, "and could wear them only for competitions. We got so used to playing barefoot that often we'd just take off our shoes when we played competitions. Many jokes were made about us. The first time we went to Taipei, the whole village stopped work to bid us farewell. The people killed a pig, and everyone gathered in a circle and sang and danced. The next day we walked 10 miles before we could get a ride to Taipei." In the '69 championship game against Santa Clara, Calif., Yu had two hits and scored twice. His teammates called him the Lucky Player.
Today Yu, 35, is a warden at Taitung Prison. The work affords him and his family a modest life, and Yu projects a facade of reasonable contentment. "It's a good job," he says. "I've had it for 10 years, and it would be a pity to throw it away." Yet later he says, "I don't like it. There's no future for me. I'd like to coach baseball, but the pay is lousy."
Yu amuses himself by hunting for flying squirrels in the hills with a bow and arrow and by playing catch with his sons. He misses baseball, but for someone of his generation, the game didn't hold much future. Taiwan had no professional baseball—only a few adult leagues sponsored by large companies. Parents urged their children to concentrate on finding a profession. Yu did. He is a civil servant, and thus more fortunate than most aborigines, who still live in mountain hovels, farming corn and rice or, like Yu's friend, former Red Leaf shortstop Cho Du-shun, driving a taxi.
Taiwan remains stratified, a place where the Confucian belief in the obligation of the privileged to support the downtrodden hasn't always squared with Mandarin contempt for non-Chinese ethnic groups. The aborigines, who total less than 2% of Taiwan's population, were pushed out to the inhospitable mountains by the Chinese and ridiculed for their ceremonial feathers, witch doctors, superstitions and odd languages. Before his games, Yu covered his uniform with salt and ran his hands through the cloth for luck.
"Mainlanders look down on the Taiwanese, the Taiwanese-look down on the aborigines, and the aborigines kick the dogs," says Dorothy Ko, who teaches Chinese history at UC San Diego. It was fitting that the first champions were from Red Leaf. Merit had come to those who worked hard for it.
Riches have come to Ko Yuan-tsu, 35, an aborigine who pitched the penultimate victory for the Golden Dragons at Williamsport in 1969. Today he pitches for the Nagoya Dragons in Japan's top professional league. Each Japanese team is permitted two foreign players, and until last year, when Ko became a Japanese citizen, he lived the outsider's life in Japan. Foreigners, and especially other Asians, are often regarded coolly in Japan. "Talking about discrimination," says Ko, "mental toughness counts in Taiwan, and it counts here. In Taiwan if a Taiwanese plays at the same level as me, they'd play the Taiwanese. That's why I wanted to be better. Of course, I feel discrimination, but my philosophy is, You look down on me, I'll change your mind." So he has. Since joining Nagoya, a traditionally weak franchise, in 1981, he has won 83 games against 75 losses, with a 3.20 ERA.
Ko took his 94-mph fastball north because Japan offered a superior level of competition and better financial opportunities than Taiwanese company teams. He grew up in a one-room grass hut with his parents, four brothers and two sisters. Today he earns $700,000 a year. "We had a lot of rice to eat," he says of his childhood. "Nothing else. I have always really wanted to help my mom and dad, and now all that's taken care of."
Ko remains a hero in Taiwan, where some fans display baseballs bearing his signature in glass cases beside pieces of Ming pottery. However, in many ways he has left Taiwan behind him. He is married to a former Miss Japan contestant, with whom he has three children, and he has learned to speak Japanese well. "I feel that since I'm here," he says, "I have to blend in."
Also playing in Japan are two other Taiwanese players, the handsome Tokyo Giants slugger Lu Ming-tsu, 26, and Seibu Lions pitcher Kuo Tai-yuan, 29, a spindly, hawk-eyed man who throws close to 100 mph. Over the years many of the best Taiwanese players have been members of lower-level Japanese teams, and one of them, Tan Shin-ming, was loaned to the Class A Fresno (Calif.) Giants for the 1974 season, thus becoming the only Taiwanese to play pro baseball in the U.S. "He was sort of like Luis Tiant because he twisted and turned when he delivered the ball," says Boston Red Sox designated hitter Jack Clark, who was Tan's teammate in Fresno. "He was a very good pitcher. I thought we'd go up through the minors together, but I never saw him after that year."
Tan went 8-4 for Fresno in what turned out to be his best professional season. Today he has a job in a recent venture whose very existence has brought hope to young baseball players all over Taiwan. Tan is managing the Mercuries Tigers in this, the second year of the Chinese Taipei Professional Baseball League.
In 1984 Hong Ton-son, the owner of the five-star Brother Hotel in Taipei, placed an advertisement in most of the city's 20 daily newspapers. Hong, a respected businessman and a bit of an eccentric, was seeking players for the Brother Hotel team, which he was forming to compete in the most elite of the corporate leagues. His pitch to prospective players was the following: This year, our team. In three years, our own stadium. Five years after that, professional baseball.
The message met with general opposition. It was well for Hong to form a team if he liked, and fine if he thought he could afford a stadium—land in Taiwan was going for about $300,000 an acre—but professional baseball? "Almost everyone objected, from the Amateur Baseball Association to the newspapers," says Hong. "They felt we didn't have enough players, that our facilities were very poor. Nobody wanted to see change. But we used to have 300 Little League teams, and now there were 30. This was because there was no future. Players could not live on the small salary of a player on the national team. In fact, the only way to save amateur baseball was to promote professional baseball. We had to make a dream for them."
Pro baseball seemed a natural in a country where the youngsters were so skilled and the fans so passionate that millions of them arose several nights in succession at 3 a.m. to watch Little League tournament games televised from Pennsylvania. But powerful political voices said otherwise. Taiwan feared public humiliation. Except for C.K. Yang's silver medal in the 1960 Olympic decathlon, Taiwan's experience in international adult athletic competition had been one of unrelenting failure. The Olympic baseball team, however, provided reason for optimism. The Taiwan nine had just claimed a bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and many Taiwanese worried that, in the words of P.P. Tang, president of the island's Broadcasting Corporation of China and director of Taiwan's Amateur Baseball Association, "if you have professional baseball, you don't have the players for amateur competition in which our country's flag is displayed."
Yet Hong, 52, has always been ruled more by passion than by convention. In a Taiwan that has become a land of cupidity, his tastes are austere; in a country that prizes conformity, he is unabashedly sentimental. He owns no car, preferring the anonymity of taxicabs. On his wrist is the tarnished watch his father gave him almost 40 years ago. Instead of a briefcase he carries a khaki schoolbag that he bought as a college freshman. Confucius said, "Extravagance means ostentation, frugality means shabbiness: I would rather be shabby than ostentatious." Hong feels the same way, except when it comes to baseball.
He has adored the game since childhood. There are five Hong brothers, and on the morning of the youngest's wedding, all of them were sitting in their father's house wondering what to do with themselves until the evening ceremony. Hong proposed a baseball game, found a field, rounded up 13 more players and later received the tongue-lashing of his life when the groom took a pop fly in the glasses and went to the altar with stitches traversing his face.
Hong finished the stadium, earlier than advertised, in 1986, and it is the most impressive ballpark on the island. Besides the handsome diamond, the complex includes an adjacent domed infield for evening and foul-weather practices, a dormitory, ample parking space, and a scoreboard imported from America. The stadium serves as the practice field of the Brother Elephants, Hong's professional team, and as the site of the company game Hong holds each Tuesday for all interested hotel employees. "In our hotel," says Hong, "we emphasize teamwork, and I encourage teamwork by bringing our employees to play baseball."
Hong is being a touch disingenuous. The real reason hotel workers, aged 18 to 62, trundle out to the field is that the boss loves to play. He pitches, in full uniform, and his side usually wins.
Although Taiwanese Little League teams continued to fare well in Williams-port through the '80s, interest in youth baseball was subsiding at an alarming pace. This and several other factors—including Hong's conviction that professional baseball would reap a tidy profit in publicity alone for companies that sponsored teams; the shrewd appointment of Tang as commissioner of the professional league; and the stipulation that teams limit their rosters to players 24 years or older, thus assuaging concerns about a depleted national amateur team for the Olympics—led to the creation of a four-team pro circuit.
"Mr. Hong came to us and explained what he wanted to achieve," says Michael Chen, vice-president of the Mercuries Corp. and general manager of the Tigers. "You know how well our children play. It's a pity we don't provide them with advanced opportunities. Mr. Hong is highly respected. What he says is the hand on the Bible."
Chen believes that the acceptance of pro baseball was symptomatic of a new ease of mind among the Taiwanese people. They had worked so hard that now, perhaps, it was time to enjoy life a little. "The rate of saving here makes us wealthy," Chen says. "We made money, but we didn't spend it. People never even kept it in a bank. They kept it under the bed. In our history, people have been busy just making it from hand to mouth. I think this is the era for people to consider something besides work and three meals a day. In baseball, people have finally found a public activity that appeals to the whole community. The spirit to fight. The spirit to work together as a team. The spirit not to surrender. The spirit of harmony. I can see a lot of virtues in the sport, and that's why so quickly I've grown to be a baseball addict."
Today, so popular are the Mercuries Tigers, Wei-Chuan Dragons, President Lions and Brother Elephants that Taiwan cannot imagine what it hesitated about. Wu Ching-ho left a reporter's job at the prestigious China Times of Taiwan to begin Pro-Baseball BiWeekly. "Everybody said, 'Mr. Wu, you're crazy,' " recalls Wu gleefully. "But I knew professional baseball would be successful in Taiwan. But I didn't know how fast! It's a miracle! So many crowds!"
The Chinese Taipei Professional League's 90-game season runs from March to October. Last year more than 800,000 fans attended games, and this year the total may reach 1.2 million. In the past, 30,000 fans would turn out for the Little League championship game in Taipei. This year, although admission was free, perhaps 2,000 attended. "Now that we have professional baseball, they all want to watch that," says a Little League official sadly. The papers are full of pro baseball, star players have become national celebrities, and the latest entertainment vogue is rooftop batting cages. As a result, the island now has more than 400 Little League teams. Two additional pro franchises are planned for 1994.
"I always felt I must be brave, and now I feel very happy," says Hong. "In my life I've spent 400 million new Taiwan dollars [$15 million], or maybe it's 500 million, on baseball. I don't mind. I wanted to make something for the society."
Taiwan's "Mr. Baseball," Li Gee-ming, 33, is having the worst season of his lengthy career. His back is aching, and so is his batting average, which only recently cracked .250. Still, everything Li, who plays centerfield for the Elephants, does meets with cheers from Brother fans, who throw firecrackers at other players with such statistics. "We call Li Gee-ming 'Mr. Baseball' because he has always represented our country," says Wu. "He played on the Little League national team, on the Junior League national team [ages 13 to 15], on the Big League national team [16 to 18]. Like Nolan Ryan he loves his family, loves his wife. He's a gentleman. He got the most All-Star votes from the fans last year."
"He is very gentle, he never argues with other people," says She Rue-yu, a reporter for the Min Sheng Daily News. "When he stands in the batter's box and is called out, he says nothing. He bows and goes back to the dugout. If a player's average is not very high and he is a gentleman, the fans will like him. If he has a very high batting average and bad manners, some will say, 'He's not a good player.' When we are children, our parents teach us to be good, not to argue with anyone. When we grow up, we don't argue with anybody, and we obey the umpire."
If Li, a tall, tawny man, sounds less enthusiastic than his admirers, that's understandable. "The fans gave me the title Mr. Baseball," he says, "and there's no particular reason except that I've been playing all along. To me it's a job. A career. I prefer pond fishing. Of course, my family is very important to me. By playing so much baseball, being away so much, it has been good for them, since it eliminated time for conflict. We cherish the moments when we are together. A lot of families split up when they are together a lot. They have time to quarrel and find fault with each other."
Just as Americans are wont to do, Taiwanese baseball fans impose their social ideals on professional athletes. To be popular in Taiwan, a baseball player must possess a salutary character. As Confucius said, "If you set an example by being correct, who would dare to remain incorrect?" But ballplayers cannot always demonstrate such rectitude, so Taiwanese journalists have become adept at exaggerating the personas of those who seem especially promising. The misfortunes of Tiger infielder Dun Shing-shun, whose parents died before he was 18, have been so filigreed as to make him a Taiwanese Horatio Alger.
The league is full of things that Americans are not accustomed to seeing. In the stands in Taipei, a banner reads: BASEBALL IS THE KIND OF SPORT THAT CAN EXERCISE YOUR BODY, YOUR CHARACTER AND YOUR WISDOM. IT CAN STABILIZE YOUR LIFE, AND THE ACHIEVEMENT IN BASEBALL IS NOT INFERIOR TO ECONOMIC ACHIEVEMENT. Players who hit home runs receive stuffed replicas of their team's mascot from a pretty girl as they cross home plate. Everyone shakes hands with the opposition after games and then bows to the fans. The fans, in turn, have been known to rain water bottles, soft-drink cans and stadium seats on players who displease them either with lousy play or, more likely, with hard slides, brushback pitches and other breaches of decorum. "Crazy people!" says Wu. Alternatively, a player whose actions appeal to the fans' sense of proper execution may find cash-filled Chinese New Year envelopes floating down toward him.
Players can find playing in such an atmosphere terribly stressful. The Elephants' strapping first baseman, Hwang Kwang-kwei, won last year's batting title with a .342 average. Early this season he was shifted to third base and, worried that he would embarrass himself at an unfamiliar position, he hit in the low .200s. "I'm really under pressure because of last year," says Hwang. "I always feel I must change the game every time I hit. For two or three months I couldn't hit. I lay in bed night after night, not sleeping. Gradually it gets better."
Today Hwang is back at first base, and his average has improved to .263. His wife, a former sprinter on the national track team, recently gave birth to the couple's first child. "We don't have a name for him yet," said Hwang two weeks after his son was born. "We just call him Little Slugger."
Another Taiwanese custom holds that coaches and umpires must be venerated. This can cause difficulties for players. The Lions' Too Foo-ming, 32, was one of Taiwan's best pitchers until he hurt his elbow last season. Understandably, Too refuses to criticize his manager, a 50-year-old baseball traditionalist named Cheng Kun-chi. Too prefers to discuss matters more generally. "Old coaches don't know how to protect the arms of their pitchers," he says. "My experience was that last year I'd start one game, relieve in the next and start again two days later."
Too is hardly the only Taiwanese pitcher to have fallen victim to the tyranny of discipline. Dragon pitcher Joe Strong, a former minor leaguer from the U.S. (because of a shortage of players, each of the four Taiwanese teams may carry five foreigners), describes the cruel fate of his teammate Li Chun-hong. "It about broke my heart," says Strong. "He's a lefthander. He had impeccable control, threw 92 mph. Last year he had to pitch three games in a row, 27 innings, no rest. Now he can barely break a plate of glass. He works his butt off, but his arm is dead."
This year the Dragons have a new manager, Chu Shen-ming, the protègè of Tiger manager Tan. Dragon and Tiger players say that these are managers who realize that adult men should not always be expected to play like 11-year-old boys. "I think the players who last are lucky," says David Lick-yeung Wong, a Hong Kong native who is the Taiwan professional league's only trainer. "I've been in Taiwan six years, and our sports-medicine association is promoting the message that this is not the way to treat kids. But it takes time. Taiwan is a different world."
Some aspects of contemporary Taiwanese cities—glittering karaoke (sing-along) parlors, French and Italian boutiques, expensive nightclubs fronted by life-sized steel palm trees or kitschy Egyptian sculptures, streets filled with German luxury cars and motorcylists wearing surgical masks to protect themselves against the horrific air pollution—have little in common with the spirit of Confucius. The same is true for a number of Taiwan's professional baseball players. Elephant pitcher Chen Yi-hsin, for instance, is known for his elaborate celebrations of strikeouts. "He lets you know," says Strong. "The guys say, 'We smile here.' " He points to his mouth. " 'We remember here.' " He points to his heart.
Chen, 28, pitched in Japan for a year before joining the Elephants. "As a boy, I studied more than I played sports," he says. "That's why I didn't hurt my arm. I hated baseball! Now it's for money. Game! Finish! Shower! Girl! I'm a young man! If you're an old man, you can sleep, but I'm single. I have girlfriends! I drink beer! I dance! I'm Chinese! I sing karaoke very well!" He's also very fortunate in that he won eight times in the 45-game first half of this season.
Some of the 11 Americans in the league say that the Taiwanese player who would have the best chance of making it to the U.S. majors is Too Hong-chin, a burly Tiger righthander with kinky curls who is called Train. "Bad boy!" sighs Wu. "He's like John McEnroe. This guy is really hot-tempered!"
Too, 27, has a 2.43 ERA, relies on a hard, sinking fastball and offers few changeups of any sort. "I have my own life and my own style, and being a gentleman isn't it," he says. "I don't have to be a gentleman. If I'm rude, I intimidate the other team. I seldom smile when I pitch. The fans think I'm cool."
A lot of them don't, actually, and neither did the owners of the Japanese team he used to play for, who complained that Too's yakuza (gangster) friends were spending too much time around the ballpark. Since returning to Taiwan, Too has purchased a blue Mercedes with smoky windows and demonstrated a predilection for Chanel perfume and a propensity for angling, though of a different sort than Li's. "I like to fish and hunt," Too says. "For pretty ladies."
Although most every player in the Chinese Taipei Professional Baseball League played Little League, the top level of professional play in Taiwan is vastly inferior to that of the U.S. Most pitchers don't throw very hard, defense can be erratic, and home runs are scarce even though the ballparks are smaller than those in the States. Trouble is, after the rigorous Little League years, only the few boys who were groomed for the national team had much incentive to keep playing. But observers think matters will soon be different.
"Their biggest problem is that they don't do it," says Elephant shortstop Darrell Brown, an American who's a former Minnesota Twin. "At age 12 they're the best in the world, but there's been nowhere to go after that. Baseball didn't pay until now, and parents here want their children to have a future. They'll get a lot better."
Matt Huff, an American designated hitter who has been handed nine stuffed dragons so far this season, feels that the Taiwanese pros have already made strides. "The caliber of baseball is decent," says Huff. "They've made vast improvements since last year."
Some say that Taiwanese adults will never remind anyone of American ballplayers, simply because of their slighter builds. "Look at Roger Clemens, look at us," says one skeptic. Tan disagrees. "One day we'll be competitive with the U.S. major leagues," he says. "This here is about Double A baseball, and soon we'll be at Triple A."
When and if this happens, the Taiwanese game will still seem distinct from the American game. "The Taiwanese are trying to produce their own style," says Huff. "They don't want to copy us."
If Little League can serve as a preamble, then future Taiwanese professional hitters will always make contact and will run well. Pitchers will hardly walk anybody and will master many different pitches, none of which will go straight. All teams will play with intelligence, and they will play together. Even Tan will tell you that although the Taiwanese will never emulate the strident ritualism of Japanese baseball, a dugout in Taipei will always feature more solidarity than one in Boston or Chicago. "Virtue never stands alone," said Confucius.
Taiwanese baseball executives are the same men who created an industrialized "Little Dragon" from the ashes of World War II. "We must protect [the game], we must keep being creative, we must improve the standard of player performance," says Tiger general manager Chen. Already the blueprint for industrial success is being applied to baseball. Among the priorities are new ballparks and a wage scale elevated enough to lure the best players home from Japan. Already, Taiwanese youngsters are seized with a new baseball ambition.
Dai Han-chao, now 25, struck out 17 as he beat Campbell, Calif., 2-1, with curves and sliders in the title game of the 1979 Little League World Series. Today he works as an accountant and plays for the Retired Service Engineering Agency (RSEA), a massive construction and engineering corporation. "During Little League we trained four hours a day and also in our spare time after class," he says. "At the time I hoped to become a coach. Today I'd like to play professional baseball. It didn't use to be a glamorous profession. Now it's something different. Lots of people want to play. The young generation wants to be the professional generation."
Wu Chun-liang, the star of the '86 championship game in Williamsport, has forsaken almost everything for baseball. He left his home in Tainan at age 12, and since then he has lived in a dormitory in the town of Ping-Tung, sharing a room with 20 other young candidates for the national team. He attends electrical engineering classes four hours a day and practices and watches instructional baseball videos for six hours. After meals he has one hour free. This is Chun-Hang's schedule every week, except when the team is traveling and during the summer, when more practice time replaces classwork. Chun-liang even sleeps with a baseball in his hand to perfect his grip on the elusive split-fingered fastball.
"Kids sometimes run away [from here]," Chun-liang says. "Nobody says anything bad about them. When I hurt my arm, I thought of it myself. The first year I would cry secretly. A lot of others cried too. Now we're used to the life. I still miss my parents, but even this, I believe, is not enough practice. My pitching repertoire is not yet perfect. I want to play until I can no more. When we won the championship, the most we could dream of was to play for the Taiwan Electric or the Taiwan Cooperative Bank team. Now everybody wants to play for the Lions."
Or the Dragons. A typhoon is brewing in the East China Sea, and for the Lions the rains can't get to Taipei soon enough. They are playing the Dragons at Taipei Stadium, and by the third inning they are losing 9-2. The Dragons, the first-half champions, have Strong on the mound and the Lions to thank; the Lions have made four errors, and all have led to Dragon runs. Except for the Lions' 50-man official cheering section—all members get free tickets and bright green T-shirts in exchange for their relentless optimism—Lion fans are shrill with their displeasure.
But what's this? The usually reliable Strong doesn't have it tonight, either. At the end of the fourth, the score is 9-5, and one inning later the Dragons' margin is 10-6. The Lions have 13 hits and the Dragons 11. The game is three hours old. Manager Chu has been tolerant, but he has seen enough, and he motions for a pitching change. To start the sixth, a slender man wearing the Dragons' white with red pinstripes strides purposefully out to the mound. He warms up with an economical motion featuring a compact leg kick. This is Huang Ping-yang—or, as many call him, Jin Be-ruen (the Man with the Golden Arm). He is the quintessential Taiwanese athlete: a player of rare skill and a perfect gentleman.
Huang takes his warmup tosses. They include a veering sinker, a knuckleball and a nasty forkball to complement his other, more mundane tools, such as an 86-mph fastball. That's not Sandy Koufax, but then this isn't Los Angeles, and besides, deception is Huang's game. "He's smart, the smartest pitcher I've ever seen," says Strong. Huang had gotten his seventh win of the season earlier in the week, but tonight when Strong wasn't, and Chu looked down the bench, Huang said he felt capable of offering the American a little relief.
Thirty minutes later the game is over. Mixing sinkers and knuckle curves, Huang has walked none, permitted one hit and been nicked for a single unearned run. He wraps his arm carefully. Then he goes home to drink some tea.
"Tea is training for baseball," says Huang. "It makes me calm. When I play, there is such a large audience. Many people panic. Tea stabilizes me. The Chinese see drinking tea as a kind of self-training." In the basement of Huang's Taipei home, behind a bamboo curtain, is his teahouse, and it is here that he entertains friends with an ancient Chinese tea ceremony. It's a beautifully decorated room. Rice paper lanterns and bamboo cages holding fluffy white songbirds hang from the ceiling. Poems in elegant calligraphy and depictions of mountains and lakes in black-and-white ink washes cover the walls. Elsewhere are pieces of jade, ceramic bowls and hundreds of teapots, of which Huang and his best friend, Dragon centerfielder Lin I-tseng, are avid collectors. Some of Huang's teapots are more than 300 years old.
Huang is renowned for his skill at preparing tea. "Chinese tea is like Chinese kung fu—if too hot, no good; if too cold, no good," says Wu, who drinks with Huang on occasion. Huang does everything gracefully. First he pours a cup that is to be smelled and then discarded into a large bowl. The glazed clay cups are small. Huang's tea is always good, so his guests drink many pots of the yellow-green infusion. After each pot is emptied, the sodden leaves are replaced. Once they dry, they may be used as pillow ticking. Sleeping on dried tea leaves is thought to encourage strength of mind.
Huang is talking about teamwork. "It's a matter of tradition in our race," he says while filling the cups that are set out before him on an exotic burnished-red-wood table. "Japanese, Koreans and Chinese pay attention to teamwork. You must know your partner, so you can always be certain what he will do next. Almost everyone on our team likes to drink tea. That's why we win so often. We spend a lot of time drinking tea together, and we communicate."
Lin nods in agreement. He's a bashful man, and nothing embarrasses him more than when Strong calls him "the Rickey Henderson of Taiwan." But the fact is that at 33, Lin is the best nonpitcher in the country—a graceful centerfielder, a steady hitter and a roe on the bases. Lin doesn't have as many teapots as Huang, but as Huang will tell you, "Every one of Lin's teapots is good."
Lin is called Daw Sheoi (the Handsome Thief). Last year he stole 34 bases in 85 games. "I can still run fast because I am a fighter," he says from behind his teacup. "Everyone has his duty, and since my talent is running, I must run." And his friend Huang? "He's very changeable. He knows seven pitches, so it's hard to stay with him."
Huang is from the bustling port city of Kaohsiung, where his parents sold noodles on the street. After Little League he was the only member of his team to keep playing ball. "I loved it, and my parents supported me," he says. He attended Fu Jen University in Taipei, where he played baseball. Then, after mandatory military service, he spent two years playing in Japan. Today his parents live with him, and if they could, so would most children in the neighborhood, who flock about his gate at all hours of the day.
Confucius said that "to love unbending strength without loving learning is liable to lead to undiscipline," but Huang is in no danger of falling prey to that. He likes to read poetry, especially the Tang Dynasty master Li Pai, and he owns a number of ink calligraphy brushes with which he copies some of his favorite verses from memory. "Everywhere I go, I visit writers and poets," he says. "Mostly they want to talk about baseball. I ask them about calligraphy. I want to improve."
He approaches pitching just as carefully, preparing his body for punishment by running, lifting weights and taking massages. "My arm has been trained," is how he explains winning 20 games the summer of 1990.
Huang is a Buddhist, but he is not immune to Chinese mysticism. "Buddhism influenced me very much," he says. "My emotions remain placid, and that's important for a lengthy season. That doesn't mean I don't care about winning, only that I keep it in perspective. As for pitching, I like it for two reasons. One has to do with my figure. People thought I looked like a pitcher. The second has to do with my blood type. Chinese catchers are blood type A. They must consider many situations. Pitchers are blood type O. Blood type O is most calm and patient and willing to fight. When I'm pitching, I'm happiest when I outsmart someone. Western pitchers throw very fast, but they aren't always controlled. We Chinese can't throw as fast as they do, but we are very controlled."
Yes, they are. "The gentleman is easy of mind," said Confucius.