Taiwan has become one of the world's wealthiest nations by transforming itself from a tropical afterthought into an island of industry. Modern riches came with strict attendance to ancient principles, most prominently The Analects of Confucius, the revered moralist who died in 479 B.C. and is taught in every Taiwanese school. "Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man's character," said the Master.
Such discipline and the Confucian ideal of merit, which says that anyone can achieve success if he works hard enough, have much to do with the Taiwanese children's eminence in baseball. "If there is any secret, it is that our kids are more obedient and diligent," said Hsieh Kuocheng, the father of Taiwan Little League, in 1977. At Da Ruan Primary School, which went on to win the Far East championship to qualify for the Little League World Series, the players practice several hours a day, month after month. Everybody participates in flip drills, runs laps around the field, shags during batting practice and never, ever fusses.
But what becomes of them later? What happens to these extraordinary youngsters when they outgrow their Little League jerseys? In fact, their branch roads have been many.
Baseball was brought to Taiwan by the Japanese, who occupied the island for 50 years beginning in 1895. But as anyone in Taiwan can tell you, the country's baseball tradition really started in 1968, when a team of aborigine children from the town of Red Leaf, in the maple-dappled mountains outside the city of Taitung, swept three games from Wakayama, the world champion Japanese Little League team, in a friendship series, shutting them out each time. The Taiwanese were ecstatic. The conquerors had been vanquished by a group of young players descended from the island's first inhabitants.
The next year Taiwan sent its own team to Williamsport. The Golden Dragons, largely stocked with aborigine players, brought the island its first championship in any kind of international athletic competition. Upon their return, these poor mountain children, who had learned to play the game by hitting peach pits with bats they fashioned from the branches of guava trees, were treated to an eight-hour victory parade in Taipei and an audience with President Chiang Kai-shek.
Sitting in a cramped, musty house down an alley two blocks from Taitung Prison, Yu Hong-kai, the Red Leaf and Golden Dragon third baseman of those years and the only person to play for both teams, is clutching the youngest of his three sons in one cabbage-sized palm and a Long Life Mild cigarette in the other. "We had only one pair of sport shoes," says Yu, "and could wear them only for competitions. We got so used to playing barefoot that often we'd just take off our shoes when we played competitions. Many jokes were made about us. The first time we went to Taipei, the whole village stopped work to bid us farewell. The people killed a pig, and everyone gathered in a circle and sang and danced. The next day we walked 10 miles before we could get a ride to Taipei." In the '69 championship game against Santa Clara, Calif., Yu had two hits and scored twice. His teammates called him the Lucky Player.
Today Yu, 35, is a warden at Taitung Prison. The work affords him and his family a modest life, and Yu projects a facade of reasonable contentment. "It's a good job," he says. "I've had it for 10 years, and it would be a pity to throw it away." Yet later he says, "I don't like it. There's no future for me. I'd like to coach baseball, but the pay is lousy."
Yu amuses himself by hunting for flying squirrels in the hills with a bow and arrow and by playing catch with his sons. He misses baseball, but for someone of his generation, the game didn't hold much future. Taiwan had no professional baseball—only a few adult leagues sponsored by large companies. Parents urged their children to concentrate on finding a profession. Yu did. He is a civil servant, and thus more fortunate than most aborigines, who still live in mountain hovels, farming corn and rice or, like Yu's friend, former Red Leaf shortstop Cho Du-shun, driving a taxi.
Taiwan remains stratified, a place where the Confucian belief in the obligation of the privileged to support the downtrodden hasn't always squared with Mandarin contempt for non-Chinese ethnic groups. The aborigines, who total less than 2% of Taiwan's population, were pushed out to the inhospitable mountains by the Chinese and ridiculed for their ceremonial feathers, witch doctors, superstitions and odd languages. Before his games, Yu covered his uniform with salt and ran his hands through the cloth for luck.
"Mainlanders look down on the Taiwanese, the Taiwanese-look down on the aborigines, and the aborigines kick the dogs," says Dorothy Ko, who teaches Chinese history at UC San Diego. It was fitting that the first champions were from Red Leaf. Merit had come to those who worked hard for it.