Taiwanese baseball on the rise


Greetings to all. It has been an exciting first week of the season, and I can’t wait to see where it goes! My name is Misfit Nate and I will be blogging twice a week, every week right here on puckettspond for the upcoming season. While all of us here will be bringing you all things Twins and MLB, this blog space is dedicated to tracking news, stories and developments from all around the diverse world of baseball. That’s right, I will be blogging about the international markets, the players, the teams, the traditions, cultures, and histories. Most importantly, we will track what is going on around the planet, pinpointing ways in which multiple corners of the globe enrich the world’s greatest game.

More than one national anthem has already been sung, so let’s play ball!

Taiwanese baseball on the rise

This week we will profile the island nation of Taiwan, whose strong showing in the latest installment of the World Baseball Classic has gotten the attention of more than a few. Playing as Chinese Taipei in the tournament, the Taiwanese team upset rival Korea and made it to the final 8 teams for the first time in tournament history.

Baseball was originally brought to the island of Taiwan by Japanese colonists at the turn of the 20th century, and it has thrived. The game’s popularity is unrivaled on the island, with every meaningful performance by former New York Yankees star Chien-ming Wang being automatic front page news in his hayday.

Taiwanese baseball entered a golden age in the 1970s and 80s, which peeked interest in the sport. The trend was set off and perpetuated by a string of Little League World Series victories in those two decades. Since then, the game has never lost popularity.

Offering a source of national pride to a country often excluded from mainstream international organizations, baseball is an outlet for the island nation to voice their pride. This quote, cited from a New York Times article written in 2009, provides perspective on what the sport means to the Taiwanese populace. From Professor Yu Jun-wei of National Taiwan Sport University in Taichung,

“In the past, we used baseball to raise our morale and reinforce our national identity. It still serves a political purpose. China always says we’re part of their territory. But we can use baseball to prove to ourselves and others that we still exist in international society.”

While neither the popularity of the sport nor its status as the Taiwanese national pastime are in question, the domestic market has sadly failed. The more than 20 year old Chinese Professional Baseball League has been riddled with scandals since its inception. The handful of teams, maxing out at 9 in the late 1990s, have seen the integrity of the game turned into a joke. Intricate gambling scandals at the highest levels of ownership have served to ravage the CPBL, to the point where the struggling league is down to only four teams. For decades the CPBL was essentially an outlet for Taiwanese organized crime, whose betting rings included nearly all major elements of the league, from the ownership down to the players themselves. The players, many of whom tossed games for cash, were on several occasions intimidated and physically harmed by mafioso-type characters, with one player even having a gun put in his mouth. The intimidation wasn’t purely to scare the players into submission, but was also a form of retribution for upsetting the plans of fixed games.

There is evidence that the trend is turning, as the Taiwanese authorities have cracked down on gambling rings and the league has come under new leadership, which has a zero tolerance approach to fixing games.

That said, the importance of Taiwanese baseball, for now, does not lie with the struggling CPBL. Since colonial times when baseball was a Japanese export to Taiwan, the best players have often found themselves going north to play. For over a century, Taiwanese ballplayers have typically looked for success in Japan, including Baltimore Orioles star Wei-yin Chen. The phenomenon of relocating to Japan is as old as the game itself on the island of Taiwan.

Taiwanese baseball, however, is growing. While talented players know all too well the beaten path to Japanese baseball glory, the trend of Taiwanese players signed to Major League organizations is now on the rise. The original success story, Chien-ming Wang, pitched as an ace for the most storied franchise in history, the New York Yankees, from 2005-2009 until a severe injury to his right foot undoubtedly cost him several more elite seasons. He was on the roster of the Washington Nationals until this past offseason. Most recently, Wang pitched 12 scoreless innings in the 2013 WBC to help propel Taiwan onto a larger stage.

While Chin-Feng Chen became the first Taiwanese Major Leaguer in 2002 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Wang has found the most success among Taiwense players. Six others have also made it to the Show. Wei-yen Chen and Che-Hsuan Lin, for the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, respectively, debuted last year. Chen has Taiwan in a craze. His successful Major League starts are now front page news, as Wang’s were before him. Both of them have pitched in the dominant AL East, where the hitters aren’t friendly.

2010 NL All-Star Hong-Chih Kuo, the former closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has also generated attention in the direction of Taiwanese baseball. In addition to being Taiwan’s first MLB All-Star, Kuo had the honor of launching the first Taiwanese homerun in Major League history with a 412 foot shot in 2007.

Led by Wei-yen Chen, who at 26 still has loads of star potential, other Taiwanese prospects are beginning to surface. Our own Minnesota Twins inked Taiwanese highschool pitcher Hung-Yi Chen to a contract in 2010. At still only 20 years old, Hung-Yi Chen has a chance to make it to the Twins through the minor league system. He posted a 3.41 for the Twins GCL team last season in 16 games. He is the second prospect to be signed by the Twins from Taiwan.

Dozens of other Taiwanese prospects have been signed by Major League teams in the past three years. With scouting going all the way down to the highschool level, as it was with Hung-Yi Chen, one can see how deep the intrigue is with Taiwanese baseball by scouts for the highest level of the game.

Most of these prospects, such as RHP Ping-Hsueh Che of Cleveland and LHP Yi-Hsiang Lin of the Baltimore Orioles, are young and raw. The path to Japan is being skipped in favor of trying their luck in the minor league systems of MLB teams.

The most exciting Taiwanese prospect is SS Tzu-Wei Lin of the Boston Red Sox, who was given a $2.05 million signing bonus out of highschool last summer. Lin has the potential to be Taiwan’s first break out position player in the big leagues. The hype on him is high, and he is viewed within the Red Sox organization as a key prospect. A multi-million dollar signing bonus had been previously unheard of for a Taiwanese player. As we can see from cases like Tzu-Wei Lin, the rise of Taiwanese baseball is upon us. Chien-ming Wang set the pace, Wei-yin Chen has followed, and other young, promising prospects from the talent pool of Taiwan, such as Lin, will soon make their presence felt. If the CPBL can right their sinking ship and craft a respectable league, the international baseball community needs to watch out for the wave of talent from Taiwan, whose passion for and deep-seeded history of baseball make it a dangerous competitor.

*As a footnote, Manny Ramirez has signed on to play in Taiwan this season for a (relatively) mere $25,000/month. Looking for a fresh beginning, the very notion that the EDA Rhinos of Kaohsiung are interested in enhancing their publicity speaks to the idea that the tradition of baseball in Taiwan is one that is being perpetuated and furthered by continuous and renewed interest in the game. Manny will sell tickets and is going to be relied on to help did the CPBL out of obscurity.