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�an 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 5� 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.