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A baseball void gives Taiwan some limelight

A Fubon Guardians’ pitcher throws during a game against Chinatrust Brothers with no audience at Xinzhuang Baseball Stadium in New Taipei City, Taiwan. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

Sports

A baseball void gives Taiwan some limelight

With sporting events canceled around the world, Taiwan’s baseball league is one of only two playing

On the evening of April 30, CTBC Brothers faced off against the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions in a stadium in the southern city of Tainan. Typically, baseball games in Taiwan are noisy affairs with rowdy crowds and cheerleaders beating drums and leading call-and-response chants as spectators chomp on sweet Taiwanese sausages and fried chicken. 

But because of the coronavirus pandemic regulations, the stands were empty and the stadium uncommonly still. Banners draped over the seats. One thanked front-line workers. Still, music blared from the speakers as the Uni-Lions cheerleaders danced to the cameras while the team’s mascots—a lion and a milkfish head named Saba Boy—donned face masks as they danced to K-pop and pretended to cook barbecue in the stands.

Josh Roenicke, a pitcher for Uni-Lions, noted the strange new normal: The field was eerily quiet, and he could hear chatter from the dugouts. “I have a little more focus without all that noise, but the game is not as exciting,” he said. Another team, the Rakuten Monkeys, set up cardboard cutouts and mannequins dressed in Rakuten jerseys holding signs at their home games, while robots played the drums amid flashing lights. On Friday, Taiwan relaxed regulations, allowing up to 1,000 fans to watch a game in the stadium. They must sit three seats apart, with every second row of seats empty. They can't bring in outside food, and concession stands are still closed.

Being able to play ball at all is a luxury most countries can’t afford as the coronavirus has infected nearly 4 million people globally, and many countries remain in lockdown. On April 12, Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) was the first in the world to start its baseball season, then the Korean Baseball Organization followed on May 5. Taiwan’s government has been proactive in fighting the virus. Despite being only 81 miles from mainland China, the island of 23 million has 440 cases of infection and six deaths.

The time in the spotlight presented an opportunity for the four-team CPBL, whose first season was in 1990. With baseball fans around the world missing the crack of the bat and the thrill of a home run, more are tuning in to Taiwan baseball games, which are now livestreamed online with English commentary. Eleven Sports Taiwan, which posts live broadcasts on its Twitter account, said three CPBL games from April 17-19 garnered a combined 3.6 million views, an impressive number as the games are shown at 5 or 6 a.m. eastern time. 

Previously, the number of people allowed in the ballpark—including players, coaches, umpires, cheerleaders, stadium staff, and media personnel—had to be between 150 and 200. Roenicke, who played in the U.S. major leagues and the Mexican Baseball League before coming to Taiwan two years ago, said players get temperature checks at hotels, stadiums, and buses and need to wear face masks regularly. Otherwise, he believes Taiwan has done such a good job containing the virus that in everyday life it’s easy to forget the pandemic.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Josh Roenicke of the Washington Nationals in 2014 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In March, Roenicke returned to his home in Sarasota, Fla., for the birth of his fourth child. When he returned to Taiwan, he had to quarantine for 14 days before returning to practice. He noted separation from his family during the pandemic is hard, but he prays for them and trusts God will take care of them. A Christian, Roenicke said his faith keeps him even-keeled and able to maintain an inner joy despite what happens on the field: “I don’t want baseball and my failures to define who I am.”

With the CPBL one of only two leagues playing ball in the world, Roenicke is excited more baseball fans are discovering the CPBL and hopes it’ll lead to a league expansion and more foreign players coming to Taiwan: “I hope it gives people hope that things can go back to normal.”

Taiwan considers baseball its national sport. It first came to Taiwan in the early 1900s during Japanese colonization (1895-1945). Americans brought baseball to Japan in 1872, where it grew in popularity, and Japanese nationals in Taiwan formed its first baseball team in 1906. Originally only Japanese players could join. But over the years they began to allow Taiwanese to play as well.

After the Japanese left in 1945, baseball’s popularity continued to soar in Taiwan. In 1969, Taiwan won the Little League World Series in the United States, setting off a “little league baseball craze” that saw the island winning the Little League World Series 16 times between 1970 and 1996. 

Four Taiwanese businesses formed teams that became the CPBL in 1990, which later expanded to 11 teams. But several large game-fixing scandals plagued the league, with players and even entire teams involved in fixing games in exchange for money and prostitutes. Attendance plummeted, and the league disqualified teams. In 2009, Taiwan’s government and the league promised to clean up the sport. 

Today there are again four teams: the Brothers, Uni-Lions, Monkeys, and Fubon Guardians. Last year, the Wei Chuan Dragons joined the league and will be playing in the CPBL minor league this year before joining the major league in 2021. 

Rob Liu, founder of the English-language blog CPBL Stats, said that in April his blog’s traffic increased tenfold as baseball fans around the world flocked to learn more about Taiwan’s league. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen linked to the blog in a tweet and thanked international friends for “staying up late or getting up early to cheer for the first hit with us in #Taiwan.”

Liu believes it’s unrealistic to expect that the CPBL will still maintain its high viewership after more leagues resume. But Liu believes the CPBL should “ride on this momentum as hard as it can until the end and hope that at the end of the day the millions of people who tuned in remember that something like this exists … the next time they wake up at 5 a.m., they’ll know there’s a baseball game going.”


 

AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

A baseball game between the Chinatrust Brothers and the Fubon Guardians with no audience at Xinzhuang Baseball Stadium in New Taipei City, Taiwan. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

An introduction to the CPBL and its teams

Liu, of CPBL Stats, provided a handy guide to the four main CPBL teams by comparing them to MLB teams: 

  • Rakuten Monkeys—Oakland A’s: A small-market team that couldn’t compete with wealthier teams, so it invested heavily in scouting.
  • Fubon Guardians—Los Angeles Dodgers: The team has money and the best lineup, so on paper it seems like the best. But like the Dodgers, it’s unable to bring home a championship.
  • CTBC Brothers—New York Yankees: “Not because of playing ability,” Liu stresses, but because all Taiwan baseball fans either love or hate the Brothers.
  • Uni-Lions—Miami Marlins: A team full of raw talent. But poor management and decision-making in the front office cripple its chances.

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  • T Williams
    Posted: Sat, 05/09/2020 07:34 am

    Roger Angell described the joy he got from his "favorite urban flower, the baseball box score".This article was like that for me. Jiayou Angela, Rob Liu, Josh Roenicke, CPBL and Taiwan. Even if I can't make it out to "the old ball game" it makes me feel better to know its there.