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Riches have come to Ko Yuan-tsu, 35, an aborigine who pitched the penultimate victory for the Golden Dragons at Williamsport in 1969. Today he pitches for the Nagoya Dragons in Japan's top professional league. Each Japanese team is permitted two foreign players, and until last year, when Ko became a Japanese citizen, he lived the outsider's life in Japan. Foreigners, and especially other Asians, are often regarded coolly in Japan. "Talking about discrimination," says Ko, "mental toughness counts in Taiwan, and it counts here. In Taiwan if a Taiwanese plays at the same level as me, they'd play the Taiwanese. That's why I wanted to be better. Of course, I feel discrimination, but my philosophy is, You look down on me, I'll change your mind." So he has. Since joining Nagoya, a traditionally weak franchise, in 1981, he has won 83 games against 75 losses, with a 3.20 ERA.
Ko took his 94-mph fastball north because Japan offered a superior level of competition and better financial opportunities than Taiwanese company teams. He grew up in a one-room grass hut with his parents, four brothers and two sisters. Today he earns $700,000 a year. "We had a lot of rice to eat," he says of his childhood. "Nothing else. I have always really wanted to help my mom and dad, and now all that's taken care of."
Ko remains a hero in Taiwan, where some fans display baseballs bearing his signature in glass cases beside pieces of Ming pottery. However, in many ways he has left Taiwan behind him. He is married to a former Miss Japan contestant, with whom he has three children, and he has learned to speak Japanese well. "I feel that since I'm here," he says, "I have to blend in."
Also playing in Japan are two other Taiwanese players, the handsome Tokyo Giants slugger Lu Ming-tsu, 26, and Seibu Lions pitcher Kuo Tai-yuan, 29, a spindly, hawk-eyed man who throws close to 100 mph. Over the years many of the best Taiwanese players have been members of lower-level Japanese teams, and one of them, Tan Shin-ming, was loaned to the Class A Fresno (Calif.) Giants for the 1974 season, thus becoming the only Taiwanese to play pro baseball in the U.S. "He was sort of like Luis Tiant because he twisted and turned when he delivered the ball," says Boston Red Sox designated hitter Jack Clark, who was Tan's teammate in Fresno. "He was a very good pitcher. I thought we'd go up through the minors together, but I never saw him after that year."
Tan went 8-4 for Fresno in what turned out to be his best professional season. Today he has a job in a recent venture whose very existence has brought hope to young baseball players all over Taiwan. Tan is managing the Mercuries Tigers in this, the second year of the Chinese Taipei Professional Baseball League.
In 1984 Hong Ton-son, the owner of the five-star Brother Hotel in Taipei, placed an advertisement in most of the city's 20 daily newspapers. Hong, a respected businessman and a bit of an eccentric, was seeking players for the Brother Hotel team, which he was forming to compete in the most elite of the corporate leagues. His pitch to prospective players was the following: This year, our team. In three years, our own stadium. Five years after that, professional baseball.
The message met with general opposition. It was well for Hong to form a team if he liked, and fine if he thought he could afford a stadium—land in Taiwan was going for about $300,000 an acre—but professional baseball? "Almost everyone objected, from the Amateur Baseball Association to the newspapers," says Hong. "They felt we didn't have enough players, that our facilities were very poor. Nobody wanted to see change. But we used to have 300 Little League teams, and now there were 30. This was because there was no future. Players could not live on the small salary of a player on the national team. In fact, the only way to save amateur baseball was to promote professional baseball. We had to make a dream for them."
Pro baseball seemed a natural in a country where the youngsters were so skilled and the fans so passionate that millions of them arose several nights in succession at 3 a.m. to watch Little League tournament games televised from Pennsylvania. But powerful political voices said otherwise. Taiwan feared public humiliation. Except for C.K. Yang's silver medal in the 1960 Olympic decathlon, Taiwan's experience in international adult athletic competition had been one of unrelenting failure. The Olympic baseball team, however, provided reason for optimism. The Taiwan nine had just claimed a bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and many Taiwanese worried that, in the words of P.P. Tang, president of the island's Broadcasting Corporation of China and director of Taiwan's Amateur Baseball Association, "if you have professional baseball, you don't have the players for amateur competition in which our country's flag is displayed."
Yet Hong, 52, has always been ruled more by passion than by convention. In a Taiwan that has become a land of cupidity, his tastes are austere; in a country that prizes conformity, he is unabashedly sentimental. He owns no car, preferring the anonymity of taxicabs. On his wrist is the tarnished watch his father gave him almost 40 years ago. Instead of a briefcase he carries a khaki schoolbag that he bought as a college freshman. Confucius said, "Extravagance means ostentation, frugality means shabbiness: I would rather be shabby than ostentatious." Hong feels the same way, except when it comes to baseball.
He has adored the game since childhood. There are five Hong brothers, and on the morning of the youngest's wedding, all of them were sitting in their father's house wondering what to do with themselves until the evening ceremony. Hong proposed a baseball game, found a field, rounded up 13 more players and later received the tongue-lashing of his life when the groom took a pop fly in the glasses and went to the altar with stitches traversing his face.