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Some of the 11 Americans in the league say that the Taiwanese player who would have the best chance of making it to the U.S. majors is Too Hong-chin, a burly Tiger righthander with kinky curls who is called Train. "Bad boy!" sighs Wu. "He's like John McEnroe. This guy is really hot-tempered!"
Too, 27, has a 2.43 ERA, relies on a hard, sinking fastball and offers few changeups of any sort. "I have my own life and my own style, and being a gentleman isn't it," he says. "I don't have to be a gentleman. If I'm rude, I intimidate the other team. I seldom smile when I pitch. The fans think I'm cool."
A lot of them don't, actually, and neither did the owners of the Japanese team he used to play for, who complained that Too's yakuza (gangster) friends were spending too much time around the ballpark. Since returning to Taiwan, Too has purchased a blue Mercedes with smoky windows and demonstrated a predilection for Chanel perfume and a propensity for angling, though of a different sort than Li's. "I like to fish and hunt," Too says. "For pretty ladies."
Although most every player in the Chinese Taipei Professional Baseball League played Little League, the top level of professional play in Taiwan is vastly inferior to that of the U.S. Most pitchers don't throw very hard, defense can be erratic, and home runs are scarce even though the ballparks are smaller than those in the States. Trouble is, after the rigorous Little League years, only the few boys who were groomed for the national team had much incentive to keep playing. But observers think matters will soon be different.
"Their biggest problem is that they don't do it," says Elephant shortstop Darrell Brown, an American who's a former Minnesota Twin. "At age 12 they're the best in the world, but there's been nowhere to go after that. Baseball didn't pay until now, and parents here want their children to have a future. They'll get a lot better."
Matt Huff, an American designated hitter who has been handed nine stuffed dragons so far this season, feels that the Taiwanese pros have already made strides. "The caliber of baseball is decent," says Huff. "They've made vast improvements since last year."
Some say that Taiwanese adults will never remind anyone of American ballplayers, simply because of their slighter builds. "Look at Roger Clemens, look at us," says one skeptic. Tan disagrees. "One day we'll be competitive with the U.S. major leagues," he says. "This here is about Double A baseball, and soon we'll be at Triple A."
When and if this happens, the Taiwanese game will still seem distinct from the American game. "The Taiwanese are trying to produce their own style," says Huff. "They don't want to copy us."
If Little League can serve as a preamble, then future Taiwanese professional hitters will always make contact and will run well. Pitchers will hardly walk anybody and will master many different pitches, none of which will go straight. All teams will play with intelligence, and they will play together. Even Tan will tell you that although the Taiwanese will never emulate the strident ritualism of Japanese baseball, a dugout in Taipei will always feature more solidarity than one in Boston or Chicago. "Virtue never stands alone," said Confucius.
Taiwanese baseball executives are the same men who created an industrialized "Little Dragon" from the ashes of World War II. "We must protect [the game], we must keep being creative, we must improve the standard of player performance," says Tiger general manager Chen. Already the blueprint for industrial success is being applied to baseball. Among the priorities are new ballparks and a wage scale elevated enough to lure the best players home from Japan. Already, Taiwanese youngsters are seized with a new baseball ambition.