"It is fitting that we should hold the young in awe."
Light showers, known to the Chinese as plum rain, fell during the night, but they did nothing to relieve the sweltering temperatures that, on this July Sunday, will make Taipei, Taiwan, the hottest city in East Asia. It's early yet, just past eight in the morning, but already the heat has come in waves to Taipei Stadium, and so have the fathers. They are a sport-shirted, discomforted lot, pacing, puffing feverishly on cigarettes, perspiring freely and proselytizing furiously. To amplify their thoughts on themes ranging from how to throw a slider to how to hit one, some of them have seen fit to put on gloves and pick up baseballs. Receiving their throws are their sons, small boys in red-white-and-blue uniforms who keep a respectful silence, throw harder than their papas and hit nothing but ringing line drives when they are called for batting practice.
You wouldn't know it from their calm faces, but in three hours these boys could be national heroes. Theirs is the uniform of the Da Ruan Primary School baseball team, from the city of Taichung, and at nine they will take on Li-Jen Primary School, from Tainan, to determine the Taiwanese Little League champion and, in effect, the best team of 11- and 12-year-old baseball players on earth.
True, there would still be the Far East championship in early August in Guam, against teams from six other Asian countries, and then, should the Taiwanese team win there, the eight-team Little League World Series from Aug. 20 to 24 in Williamsport, Pa. But in more years than not, the Sunday morning game in Taipei has offered Taiwanese players their stiffest challenge. In the 21 years Taiwan has participated in Little League baseball, teams from this island slightly larger than Maryland, with a population (20 million) that is less than a sixth of Japan's, have won the World Series 14 times. In the 1990 final, the San-Hua team of Tainan shrugged off Shippensburg, Pa., 9-0, to give Taiwan its fourth win in the past five years.
"At the time, I felt those American kids don't play seriously," says Wu Chunliang, 17, who shut out Tucson 12-0 in the '86 final. "They don't concentrate. They're having fun. We really play baseball. It comes from ourselves. If we lose, there must have been something wrong."
At Taipei Stadium the children remain utterly composed amid the heat—paternal and otherwise—even as they exchange bows with their opponents and begin the game of a lifetime. Not so self-possessed are their fans, many of whom awakened before daybreak to drive the two hours from Taichung or the four hours from Tainan. With Taichung righthander Pan Chia-chen's first pitch they begin waving flags, whistling, singing, chanting niceties like "Shieh!" ("You're finished!") and banging on the two huge red Chinese drums carted in for the occasion.
Chia-chen is a tall, well-proportioned 12-year-old with strong legs and a placid countenance that he retains even after Tainan takes a quick 2-0 lead. When Chia-chen retakes the mound to open the second inning, however, it becomes apparent why he has won every one of the 20-odd games he has pitched for Da Ruan over the past year. Mixing curves that break like hearts with a 75-mph fastball, he begins disposing of Tainan hitters in bunches. Through four innings Chia-chen has nine strikeouts.
With the game tied 2-2 in the fifth, Taichung's muscular shortstop, Tsen Tse-fang, hits the ball so hard to left that it wedges into the chain-link fence and he is halted at second with a ground rule double. Chia-chen fouls off two bunt attempts—"Ta-ma-deh!" ("Bull——!") scorn the fans—and hits a grounder to the right side that moves Tse-fang over and lands Chia-chen safe when the Tainan first baseman is handcuffed. Chia-chen steals second on the next pitch and then follows Tse-fang across the plate on catcher Lin Chung-chun's single up the middle to make the score 4-2. "The game's over," says an elderly Tainan fan, who pulls out chopsticks and tucks in to a box of cold noodles.
Not quite. In the sixth and final inning, with a Tainan runner on first and nobody out, Chia-chen fields a ground ball and fires to Tse-fang, who gets the force at second but is prevented from turning the double play by the base runner, who comes in spikes high. Tse-fang throws the ball down, hitting the Tainan player in the back, and then collapses in pain. Eventually he is helped to his feet, and he stays in the game. A murmur of disgust courses through the stands. Drums beat ominously, but Chia-chen is unfazed. He takes care of the last two batters himself, and the Taichung side of the stadium explodes in a blaze of firecrackers.
Taichung's coach, a slight, wiry man with thick glasses named Chang Chun-rang, is festooned with flowers and tossed in the air by his players. Tse-fang is led over to the Tainan bench, where a cluster of livid fans has gathered. "You were rude! Apologize!" they scream at him. "You must say you are sorry." Tse-fang dutifully shakes hands with the Tainan base runner, and the fans burst into applause. Tse-fang then rejoins his teammates, who are posing together for photographs behind a silken blue banner emblazoned with a golden dragon, the ancient Chinese symbol of strength and prosperity.