Hong finished the stadium, earlier than advertised, in 1986, and it is the most impressive ballpark on the island. Besides the handsome diamond, the complex includes an adjacent domed infield for evening and foul-weather practices, a dormitory, ample parking space, and a scoreboard imported from America. The stadium serves as the practice field of the Brother Elephants, Hong's professional team, and as the site of the company game Hong holds each Tuesday for all interested hotel employees. "In our hotel," says Hong, "we emphasize teamwork, and I encourage teamwork by bringing our employees to play baseball."
Hong is being a touch disingenuous. The real reason hotel workers, aged 18 to 62, trundle out to the field is that the boss loves to play. He pitches, in full uniform, and his side usually wins.
Although Taiwanese Little League teams continued to fare well in Williams-port through the '80s, interest in youth baseball was subsiding at an alarming pace. This and several other factors—including Hong's conviction that professional baseball would reap a tidy profit in publicity alone for companies that sponsored teams; the shrewd appointment of Tang as commissioner of the professional league; and the stipulation that teams limit their rosters to players 24 years or older, thus assuaging concerns about a depleted national amateur team for the Olympics—led to the creation of a four-team pro circuit.
"Mr. Hong came to us and explained what he wanted to achieve," says Michael Chen, vice-president of the Mercuries Corp. and general manager of the Tigers. "You know how well our children play. It's a pity we don't provide them with advanced opportunities. Mr. Hong is highly respected. What he says is the hand on the Bible."
Chen believes that the acceptance of pro baseball was symptomatic of a new ease of mind among the Taiwanese people. They had worked so hard that now, perhaps, it was time to enjoy life a little. "The rate of saving here makes us wealthy," Chen says. "We made money, but we didn't spend it. People never even kept it in a bank. They kept it under the bed. In our history, people have been busy just making it from hand to mouth. I think this is the era for people to consider something besides work and three meals a day. In baseball, people have finally found a public activity that appeals to the whole community. The spirit to fight. The spirit to work together as a team. The spirit not to surrender. The spirit of harmony. I can see a lot of virtues in the sport, and that's why so quickly I've grown to be a baseball addict."
Today, so popular are the Mercuries Tigers, Wei-Chuan Dragons, President Lions and Brother Elephants that Taiwan cannot imagine what it hesitated about. Wu Ching-ho left a reporter's job at the prestigious China Times of Taiwan to begin Pro-Baseball BiWeekly. "Everybody said, 'Mr. Wu, you're crazy,' " recalls Wu gleefully. "But I knew professional baseball would be successful in Taiwan. But I didn't know how fast! It's a miracle! So many crowds!"
The Chinese Taipei Professional League's 90-game season runs from March to October. Last year more than 800,000 fans attended games, and this year the total may reach 1.2 million. In the past, 30,000 fans would turn out for the Little League championship game in Taipei. This year, although admission was free, perhaps 2,000 attended. "Now that we have professional baseball, they all want to watch that," says a Little League official sadly. The papers are full of pro baseball, star players have become national celebrities, and the latest entertainment vogue is rooftop batting cages. As a result, the island now has more than 400 Little League teams. Two additional pro franchises are planned for 1994.
"I always felt I must be brave, and now I feel very happy," says Hong. "In my life I've spent 400 million new Taiwan dollars [$15 million], or maybe it's 500 million, on baseball. I don't mind. I wanted to make something for the society."
Taiwan's "Mr. Baseball," Li Gee-ming, 33, is having the worst season of his lengthy career. His back is aching, and so is his batting average, which only recently cracked .250. Still, everything Li, who plays centerfield for the Elephants, does meets with cheers from Brother fans, who throw firecrackers at other players with such statistics. "We call Li Gee-ming 'Mr. Baseball' because he has always represented our country," says Wu. "He played on the Little League national team, on the Junior League national team [ages 13 to 15], on the Big League national team [16 to 18]. Like Nolan Ryan he loves his family, loves his wife. He's a gentleman. He got the most All-Star votes from the fans last year."
"He is very gentle, he never argues with other people," says She Rue-yu, a reporter for the Min Sheng Daily News. "When he stands in the batter's box and is called out, he says nothing. He bows and goes back to the dugout. If a player's average is not very high and he is a gentleman, the fans will like him. If he has a very high batting average and bad manners, some will say, 'He's not a good player.' When we are children, our parents teach us to be good, not to argue with anyone. When we grow up, we don't argue with anybody, and we obey the umpire."