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In Taiwan the catcher is most often one of the smallest—and quickest—players on the team, and a small Chinese 12-year-old is apt to stand less than 4'10" and weight under 90 pounds. He is the most boyish of the boy players, an aspect he exaggerates by wearing his supporter and protective cup outside his trousers so that they bunch up his pants and give the impression he is wearing a diaper. He performs his grimy task with a body language that suggests youthful ebullience and in a style best described as early Manny Sanguillen.
The Taiwanese catcher wiggles slowly into his crouch. Once he gets there he sits low and loose on his haunches, content, it appears, to remain in this pose for hours. He bounces gaily as he sends out his complex series of signs. Then, for the moment it takes the pitcher to swing through his delivery and the ball to reach the plate, the little receiver becomes a man. With runners on base, he is braced up firm in a wide stance; if he has called for one of those low, outside curves, his bottom is higher than his nose, which is tucked behind his mitt as he sets a low target. When the pitch arrives, he does not field it with his body or with a wild snatch of his glove, but smoothly with his hands, as if he were caressing a feather from the air.
Runners do not advance on Chinese catchers. The last two times that Taiwan's best teams, Tainan and Kaohsiung, met this year the games were pressure-filled, nationally televised affairs. The three catchers who played in those games did not allow a stolen base or a passed ball, even though both staffs were loaded with pitchers whose wild excesses usually came in the form of curves that bounced into the dirt of the left-hand batter's box. It is a catcher's most difficult play—he must scurry far to his right and then backhand the ball on a short hop—and the three receivers made the play frequently and flawlessly.
Among all these nimble outfielders, wide-ranging infielders and catchers who can actually catch, there was one player this season who was clearly the best. His name is Wang Ching-chung. Last year as an 11-year-old he played shortstop, second base and right field for the Tainan Giants. During the Asian regional tournament he set a Taiwan record with three home runs in one game. Wang then returned home to train for his trip to the United States, a regimen that consisted mainly of going to a Western restaurant to learn how to use a knife and fork. He quickly became proficient at feeding himself steak, and it turned out that he was just as adept at eating up American pitching. In his initial plate appearance in Williamsport, after the Bitburg boys had put two of his teammates on base with errors, Wang hit a 2-2 delivery to the opposite field and over the fence to give Taiwan a 3-0 lead.
It was in commemoration of that home run that the students and teachers at the Hsiao-hsin school, where Wang completed the sixth grade early this summer, gave him the large wooden plaque that hangs outside the front door of his family's little blue farmhouse on the outskirts of Tainan, the old capital of Taiwan. The gold characters on it read: ONE HIT AND YOU WIN THE GAME. NOW YOU ARE A PERSON THE WHOLE WORLD KNOWS.
Wang is a lean but sturdy boy, tall for his age although not unusually so. He has a strong square chin and surprisingly wide eyes for a Chinese. His grin is ready and broad, and he gestures frequently with his hands and head in a manner more Italian than Taiwanese. In the United States he would easily qualify as an introvert; compared to other Chinese pre-adolescents, he is gregarious.
The boy is the eighth and youngest child of Taiwan-born Wang Chi-chen and his wife Wang Tsai. They are in their 50s and neither is bigger than their 5'4", 114-pound son. Both have skin badly shriveled by the sun and a mouthful of gold teeth. For many years Wang Chi-chen worked in a noodle factory. Now his two eldest boys have jobs, and in the customary Chinese way the father has retired—if growing several crops a year of sweet potatoes can be considered retirement—to let his sons support him. By the current standard of living in Taiwan, the Wangs are poor but not destitute.
They live up a muddy alley that branches off the main road leading from Tainan through the aptly named hamlet of Tucheng, which means Dirt City. Not far down the narrow street, past a huge puddle and a small tan house, sits an unpainted building, its once-red roof tiles blackened, buckled and in many cases broken. Until two years ago this was the Wangs' house. Now it is occupied by a couple of pigs, a few chickens, a family of black ducks and sacks of dried, shredded sweet potatoes used to feed the hogs.
Behind the old building and across a concrete slab where rice and yams are dried is the family's new home. It has two small bedrooms, a tiny dining area, a storeroom full of more sweet potatoes and, in the middle, an open space that is part temple, part living room and mostly Cooperstown.
a red and gold altar adorned with pictures of Buddha and the God of Mercy takes up most of one wall and there are three pieces of furniture, two rattan chairs and a table. Except for one more huge bag of dried sweet potatoes parked in a corner, the rest of the room is all baseball memorabilia. Two glass cases mounted on the walls are crammed with a hundred or more medals, trophies and plaques. Mixed among them are Wang's own souvenirs, including a mechanical fish he bought in Japan, a small replica of the Washington Monument and a baseball autographed by the great Japanese slugger, Oh Saduhara, whose mother is Taiwanese and whose Chinese name happens to be Wang. Completing the decor are framed newspaper articles and brightly colored silk banners that ring the room. The banners, except for one in orange and black extolling the San Francisco Giants, are a traditional way of sending congratulations. They are embroidered with the donors' names, important politicians and businessmen among them, and such slogans as NEVER LOSE and HE KNOWS HOW TO ATTACK.