Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Baseball: Taiwan’s national passion

On August 30th, US Vice President Joseph Biden, Jr., shook hands with each member of Taiwan’s Kuei Shan little league baseball team before their championship game at this year’s Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. Taiwan went on to take second place, losing to California 3-6.

Earlier that month, another Taiwanese little league baseball team lost 6-7 to Brooklyn, NY, in the semi-final of the 2009 Bronco World Series in Monterey, CA. Also, on August 10th, Taiwan’s senior league team lost 1-14 to Houston, TX, in the 2009 Palomino World Series in San Jose, CA. Coming second and just to make it to the semi-finals for these little league teams are massive achievements worthy of celebration. Still, it is a far cry from 1974, when Taiwan’s little league, senior league and big league all took home championship honors.

Baseball is Taiwan’s national sporting passion. The game was introduced during the Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to the end of World War II. The first official baseball game ever recorded in Taiwan’s history was played in 1906 between two local high schools. In 1931, a school team representing Taiwan won second place in Japan’s national baseball tournament and earned the respect of its Japanese counterparts. By the mid-1940s, baseball easily qualified as Taiwan’s national sport.

After the Kuomintang (KMT) government took over the governing of Taiwan, the first major baseball craze came in the 1970s when Taiwan suffered a series of diplomatic and political setbacks. In 1971, Taiwan was expelled from the United Nations and the government tried to compensate by supporting international sports competition as a substitute of international political participation. The people of Taiwan sought to find heroes and a new identity.

Taiwan’s little league baseball teams (11-13 years old) competed in championships on the other side of the globe and people stayed up well past midnight to watch the live broadcasts of the games. These young baseball players regained a part of Taiwan’s national pride. They won an incredible nine Little League World Series Championships in the 13 years from 1969 to 1982.

Taiwan’s senior leagues (14-16 years old) and big leagues (16-18 years old), also under the sponsorship of the Little League World Series, have also been successful. In total, Taiwan won 17 Little League World Series Championships from 1969 to 1996.

When those young players grew up, they formed the core of Taiwan’s adult baseball teams. Taiwan’s adult teams have not achieved the success of its young players, but they are still considered world-class, winning two Olympic medals – a bronze in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and silver in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. They have also grabbed four top-three honors in the biennial Baseball World Cup.

In 1989, professional baseball finally arrived in Taiwan with the formation of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL). The first game was played in 1990. CPBL was the fourth professional baseball league in the world at the time, after Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan, and Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in South Korea.

In 1997, a competitor, Taiwan Major League (TML) was founded to challenge the monopoly of CPBL. But due to financial pressures TML agreed to merge with CPBL in 2003. At present, CPBL has four teams with an average game attendance of about 3000 spectators.

Whereas steroids have tarnished the image of the game in the United States, gambling and game-fixing scandals have tarnished the game’s image in Taiwan. This has seriously eroded the game’s fan base in Taiwan.

While Taiwan has produced some great talents over the last few decades, the best players are usually courted to play for professional teams in Japan and the US. In the 1980s, Taiwanese pitchers such as Kuo Tai-yuan, Soh Katsuo (aka Chuang Shen-hsiung) posted impressive numbers with the Seibu Lions and Chiba Lotte Marines, both of Japan's NPB. More recently, young stars such as outfielder Chen Chin-feng and pitchers Wang Chien-ming, Tsao Chin-hui, and Kuo Hong-chih became the first group of Taiwanese players to play for North American Major League Baseball (MLB) teams.

Especially popular is Wang, who, playing for the New York Yankees, reached 50 MLB wins more quickly than any other player for two decades. He has become Taiwan’s first true star in American baseball and a national hero. Now there are over 20 Taiwanese baseball players competing in the US minor leagues, all with the dream of becoming the next Wang.

The Taipei-based China Times said that even though Taiwan did not win the game this time, the baseball team has inherited the traditional spirit of Taiwanese little league –great sportsmanship and a fierce fighting spirit which won them their first championship in Williamsport 40 years ago.

The United Evening News commented that Taiwan should be proud of the kids who came from the aborigine tribes, training with old equipment and facilities. However, it is not right when all the best players depart for the American major leagues or that Taiwanese baseball fans know more about Wang and the New York Yankees than any domestic team. The paper urged the government to map a long-term plan to develop the island’s baseball to establish it as truly the national sport.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.