"It wasn't the longer practices alone that did it. They also applied themselves better in training. It is simply that their lives are more regimented and diligence is probably more highly prized. The Chinese have—and always have had—something very much like the Calvinist ethic, except they leave out the part about ceaseless quest for profit."
In Little League the effects of that intensity are enhanced by the fact that young Taiwanese ballplayers rarely participate in other competitive sports, by the subtropical climate that allows them to practice year-round and by the public mania that has been spurred on by the government. The game has become an intrinsic part of the island's psyche, holding out the promise of fame to boys who otherwise would have little hope of rising above the anonymous welter of Chinese society. For a baseball purist the product of all these forces is a joy to behold.
The hitter, his translucent ecru skin shining in the afternoon sun, approaches the right-hand batter's box. With an exaggerated nod of his head and a quick two-fingered salute he greets the white-gloved umpire and steps in. He grinds his nylon cleats into the damp clay next to the plate, grips his purple aluminum bat four inches up from the knob, takes a few short level practice swings and settles into a compact stance to await the pitch.
The pitcher, also a righthander, stands on the rubber and looks in for a sign. He shakes off his catcher once, then rocks into a no-windup delivery and fires at a target set tight in on the batter's hands. The pitch is a fastball.
The particulars of this scene are repeated over and over in Taiwan Little League games. From the courtesy to the umpire to the fastball designed to jam the batter there is a marked similarity in technique among virtually all the island's players, including right-handedness. It seems there are not many Chinese lefties, at least not many of them who play baseball. This fact has become a source of some comfort for Taiwan's international rivals, who have a hunch the world champs can be had by a left-handed curveballer because they rarely see one. There is some substance to this notion since two years ago Hong Kong was being thoroughly bombed in the Asian playoffs when it brought in a lefty who shut out the Taiwanese for a couple of innings with off-speed pitches. In 1973's final World Series game, Tucson's left-handed breaking-bailer Mike Fimbers held Taiwan scoreless for three innings, before a combination of a three-run Taiwan rally and an asthma attack knocked him out after the fourth.
Aside from the right-handed proclivities of its players, there is little else in the Taiwanese style and, particularly, in its execution that gives hope to boys from other countries. Home-run hitters abound on the island (during the 1973 World Series Taiwan practiced on a full-sized field where the fences were 100 feet farther out than they are in Little League; several batters were seen driving balls out of that park), but home-run swings do not. Every hitter chokes up and uses a short stroke: batting practice consists almost entirely of line drives to center. Naturally, Taiwan has good hitters and bad ones. The best of them—the ones who make it to Williamsport—rarely loft their hits. They wrist low liners deep to the outfield and beyond, and some have even mastered the technique of taking the outside pitch to right field, an extraordinary bit of sophistication for 12-year-olds.
Taiwan's pitchers are probably no faster than their American counterparts and it is unlikely that their breaking stuff curves more. The difference is control. Taiwan's batters fearlessly dig in at the plate because they are rarely scared out of their uniforms by the bizarre deliveries served up to U.S. Little Leaguers. To the contrary, Chinese pitchers usually hit the target instead of the batter. In the case of fastballs, that means popping the pitch in on the batter's hands; with a curve, it means dropping it in the strike zone, low and away, it is a predictable pattern, but an effective one with pitchers who are able to hit the corners. Lanky Lin Wen-hsiang, who is likely to start Taiwan's opener at Williamsport, says he never is satisfied merely to put the ball over the middle of the plate. He always works around the edges, even when he is behind on the count. And, in another neat bit of sophistication, he will unhesitatingly throw a curve on 3 and 2.
Last year's mix of no-hit pitching and thunderous hitting has tended to obscure the fact that in other Series—and probably this one, too, should Taiwan win again—the R.O.C.'s triumphs have been based primarily on superior defense. Misjudged flyballs, wild throws, passed balls and grounders bouncing unimpeded through infielders" legs are routine in Little League, except when the Taiwanese are playing. Some R.O.C. coaches maintain that their boys field better because they are quicker-handed than the children of other races. There does not seem to be any scientific evidence to bear this out, but it certainly looks that way on the baseball diamond.
Taiwanese outfielders simply glide back under flies and catch them. Infielders charge grounders, keeping their bodies low and squarely in front of the balls, pick them up cleanly with their hands and then carefully plant themselves before throwing to first. But as good as the shortstops and centerfielders are, they do not equal the catchers' startling ability to play beyond their years.
Passed balls and wild pitches are almost as much a part of the average Little League game as balls and strikes. It is not unusual in America to find that every team in a league uses its biggest—or, at least, its fattest—kid behind the plate, in apparent hope that the boy's body will stop some of the pitches his hands cannot cope with.