Dai Han-chao, now 25, struck out 17 as he beat Campbell, Calif., 2-1, with curves and sliders in the title game of the 1979 Little League World Series. Today he works as an accountant and plays for the Retired Service Engineering Agency (RSEA), a massive construction and engineering corporation. "During Little League we trained four hours a day and also in our spare time after class," he says. "At the time I hoped to become a coach. Today I'd like to play professional baseball. It didn't use to be a glamorous profession. Now it's something different. Lots of people want to play. The young generation wants to be the professional generation."
Wu Chun-liang, the star of the '86 championship game in Williamsport, has forsaken almost everything for baseball. He left his home in Tainan at age 12, and since then he has lived in a dormitory in the town of Ping-Tung, sharing a room with 20 other young candidates for the national team. He attends electrical engineering classes four hours a day and practices and watches instructional baseball videos for six hours. After meals he has one hour free. This is Chun-Hang's schedule every week, except when the team is traveling and during the summer, when more practice time replaces classwork. Chun-liang even sleeps with a baseball in his hand to perfect his grip on the elusive split-fingered fastball.
"Kids sometimes run away [from here]," Chun-liang says. "Nobody says anything bad about them. When I hurt my arm, I thought of it myself. The first year I would cry secretly. A lot of others cried too. Now we're used to the life. I still miss my parents, but even this, I believe, is not enough practice. My pitching repertoire is not yet perfect. I want to play until I can no more. When we won the championship, the most we could dream of was to play for the Taiwan Electric or the Taiwan Cooperative Bank team. Now everybody wants to play for the Lions."
Or the Dragons. A typhoon is brewing in the East China Sea, and for the Lions the rains can't get to Taipei soon enough. They are playing the Dragons at Taipei Stadium, and by the third inning they are losing 9-2. The Dragons, the first-half champions, have Strong on the mound and the Lions to thank; the Lions have made four errors, and all have led to Dragon runs. Except for the Lions' 50-man official cheering section—all members get free tickets and bright green T-shirts in exchange for their relentless optimism—Lion fans are shrill with their displeasure.
But what's this? The usually reliable Strong doesn't have it tonight, either. At the end of the fourth, the score is 9-5, and one inning later the Dragons' margin is 10-6. The Lions have 13 hits and the Dragons 11. The game is three hours old. Manager Chu has been tolerant, but he has seen enough, and he motions for a pitching change. To start the sixth, a slender man wearing the Dragons' white with red pinstripes strides purposefully out to the mound. He warms up with an economical motion featuring a compact leg kick. This is Huang Ping-yang—or, as many call him, Jin Be-ruen (the Man with the Golden Arm). He is the quintessential Taiwanese athlete: a player of rare skill and a perfect gentleman.
Huang takes his warmup tosses. They include a veering sinker, a knuckleball and a nasty forkball to complement his other, more mundane tools, such as an 86-mph fastball. That's not Sandy Koufax, but then this isn't Los Angeles, and besides, deception is Huang's game. "He's smart, the smartest pitcher I've ever seen," says Strong. Huang had gotten his seventh win of the season earlier in the week, but tonight when Strong wasn't, and Chu looked down the bench, Huang said he felt capable of offering the American a little relief.
Thirty minutes later the game is over. Mixing sinkers and knuckle curves, Huang has walked none, permitted one hit and been nicked for a single unearned run. He wraps his arm carefully. Then he goes home to drink some tea.
"Tea is training for baseball," says Huang. "It makes me calm. When I play, there is such a large audience. Many people panic. Tea stabilizes me. The Chinese see drinking tea as a kind of self-training." In the basement of Huang's Taipei home, behind a bamboo curtain, is his teahouse, and it is here that he entertains friends with an ancient Chinese tea ceremony. It's a beautifully decorated room. Rice paper lanterns and bamboo cages holding fluffy white songbirds hang from the ceiling. Poems in elegant calligraphy and depictions of mountains and lakes in black-and-white ink washes cover the walls. Elsewhere are pieces of jade, ceramic bowls and hundreds of teapots, of which Huang and his best friend, Dragon centerfielder Lin I-tseng, are avid collectors. Some of Huang's teapots are more than 300 years old.
Huang is renowned for his skill at preparing tea. "Chinese tea is like Chinese kung fu—if too hot, no good; if too cold, no good," says Wu, who drinks with Huang on occasion. Huang does everything gracefully. First he pours a cup that is to be smelled and then discarded into a large bowl. The glazed clay cups are small. Huang's tea is always good, so his guests drink many pots of the yellow-green infusion. After each pot is emptied, the sodden leaves are replaced. Once they dry, they may be used as pillow ticking. Sleeping on dried tea leaves is thought to encourage strength of mind.
Huang is talking about teamwork. "It's a matter of tradition in our race," he says while filling the cups that are set out before him on an exotic burnished-red-wood table. "Japanese, Koreans and Chinese pay attention to teamwork. You must know your partner, so you can always be certain what he will do next. Almost everyone on our team likes to drink tea. That's why we win so often. We spend a lot of time drinking tea together, and we communicate."