- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
If Li, a tall, tawny man, sounds less enthusiastic than his admirers, that's understandable. "The fans gave me the title Mr. Baseball," he says, "and there's no particular reason except that I've been playing all along. To me it's a job. A career. I prefer pond fishing. Of course, my family is very important to me. By playing so much baseball, being away so much, it has been good for them, since it eliminated time for conflict. We cherish the moments when we are together. A lot of families split up when they are together a lot. They have time to quarrel and find fault with each other."
Just as Americans are wont to do, Taiwanese baseball fans impose their social ideals on professional athletes. To be popular in Taiwan, a baseball player must possess a salutary character. As Confucius said, "If you set an example by being correct, who would dare to remain incorrect?" But ballplayers cannot always demonstrate such rectitude, so Taiwanese journalists have become adept at exaggerating the personas of those who seem especially promising. The misfortunes of Tiger infielder Dun Shing-shun, whose parents died before he was 18, have been so filigreed as to make him a Taiwanese Horatio Alger.
The league is full of things that Americans are not accustomed to seeing. In the stands in Taipei, a banner reads: BASEBALL IS THE KIND OF SPORT THAT CAN EXERCISE YOUR BODY, YOUR CHARACTER AND YOUR WISDOM. IT CAN STABILIZE YOUR LIFE, AND THE ACHIEVEMENT IN BASEBALL IS NOT INFERIOR TO ECONOMIC ACHIEVEMENT. Players who hit home runs receive stuffed replicas of their team's mascot from a pretty girl as they cross home plate. Everyone shakes hands with the opposition after games and then bows to the fans. The fans, in turn, have been known to rain water bottles, soft-drink cans and stadium seats on players who displease them either with lousy play or, more likely, with hard slides, brushback pitches and other breaches of decorum. "Crazy people!" says Wu. Alternatively, a player whose actions appeal to the fans' sense of proper execution may find cash-filled Chinese New Year envelopes floating down toward him.
Players can find playing in such an atmosphere terribly stressful. The Elephants' strapping first baseman, Hwang Kwang-kwei, won last year's batting title with a .342 average. Early this season he was shifted to third base and, worried that he would embarrass himself at an unfamiliar position, he hit in the low .200s. "I'm really under pressure because of last year," says Hwang. "I always feel I must change the game every time I hit. For two or three months I couldn't hit. I lay in bed night after night, not sleeping. Gradually it gets better."
Today Hwang is back at first base, and his average has improved to .263. His wife, a former sprinter on the national track team, recently gave birth to the couple's first child. "We don't have a name for him yet," said Hwang two weeks after his son was born. "We just call him Little Slugger."
Another Taiwanese custom holds that coaches and umpires must be venerated. This can cause difficulties for players. The Lions' Too Foo-ming, 32, was one of Taiwan's best pitchers until he hurt his elbow last season. Understandably, Too refuses to criticize his manager, a 50-year-old baseball traditionalist named Cheng Kun-chi. Too prefers to discuss matters more generally. "Old coaches don't know how to protect the arms of their pitchers," he says. "My experience was that last year I'd start one game, relieve in the next and start again two days later."
Too is hardly the only Taiwanese pitcher to have fallen victim to the tyranny of discipline. Dragon pitcher Joe Strong, a former minor leaguer from the U.S. (because of a shortage of players, each of the four Taiwanese teams may carry five foreigners), describes the cruel fate of his teammate Li Chun-hong. "It about broke my heart," says Strong. "He's a lefthander. He had impeccable control, threw 92 mph. Last year he had to pitch three games in a row, 27 innings, no rest. Now he can barely break a plate of glass. He works his butt off, but his arm is dead."
This year the Dragons have a new manager, Chu Shen-ming, the protégé of Tiger manager Tan. Dragon and Tiger players say that these are managers who realize that adult men should not always be expected to play like 11-year-old boys. "I think the players who last are lucky," says David Lick-yeung Wong, a Hong Kong native who is the Taiwan professional league's only trainer. "I've been in Taiwan six years, and our sports-medicine association is promoting the message that this is not the way to treat kids. But it takes time. Taiwan is a different world."
Some aspects of contemporary Taiwanese cities—glittering karaoke (sing-along) parlors, French and Italian boutiques, expensive nightclubs fronted by life-sized steel palm trees or kitschy Egyptian sculptures, streets filled with German luxury cars and motorcylists wearing surgical masks to protect themselves against the horrific air pollution—have little in common with the spirit of Confucius. The same is true for a number of Taiwan's professional baseball players. Elephant pitcher Chen Yi-hsin, for instance, is known for his elaborate celebrations of strikeouts. "He lets you know," says Strong. "The guys say, 'We smile here.' " He points to his mouth. " 'We remember here.' " He points to his heart.
Chen, 28, pitched in Japan for a year before joining the Elephants. "As a boy, I studied more than I played sports," he says. "That's why I didn't hurt my arm. I hated baseball! Now it's for money. Game! Finish! Shower! Girl! I'm a young man! If you're an old man, you can sleep, but I'm single. I have girlfriends! I drink beer! I dance! I'm Chinese! I sing karaoke very well!" He's also very fortunate in that he won eight times in the 45-game first half of this season.