With baseball, and basically all sports, on hiatus in the US and much of the world right now, the Kansas City Royals in the US had a suggestion for hungry fans: tune in to Taiwan’s professional league (but only if you happen to be up at 4am, it cautions).
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Fans are tuning in. Among them is Mike (he only wanted to give his middle name), who lives on the US east coast and has been waking up at 6:30am to watch games. As a long-suffering Baltimore Orioles fan, he said the lower quality of the Taiwan league didn’t bother him.
“I’m not opposed to watching a bad team. I found the sound of the bat to be almost therapeutic,” he said, as he streamed two Taiwanese league games simultaneously one morning.
He’s one of millions of people who’ve been watching the four-team Chinese Professional Baseball League, which became the first professional baseball league in the world to start its 2020 season, taking the field April 12—a day late due to heavy rain—while most other countries remain hunkered down due to the coronavirus pandemic. South Korea’s pro league returns on May 5.
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Taiwan’s CPBL isn’t just one of the few professional baseball leagues in play at the moment, but one of the few professional sports leagues in play at all, joining top-league soccer in Belarus and Tajikistan.
Unlike games in Tajikistan, however, which has officially recorded no Covid-19 cases, Taiwan’s baseball games are not quite business-as-usual. Even as the nation has shown success in containing the spread of the disease, matches are being played to empty stadiums, with audience members replaced by cardboard cut-outs with faces of actual fans in the seats.
Something else is different this season for Taiwanese baseball, too. Teams that have never broadcast in English are desperately seeking English-speaking commentators to meet the demand. That’s how Wayne McNeill, a long-time Taiwan resident from Canada who grew up playing baseball in his native Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, found himself as the English voice of Taiwanese baseball. He got a call from veteran baseball commentator Richard Wang just days before the start of the season to team up in English.
“It’s a dream of mine for something like this to happen,” said McNeill, who said he rushes to his commentating job in the evenings after finishing his day job at a publishing house. “You don’t really get tired, because you’re so excited about what’s going on.” One major highlight for him, he said, was getting messages from friends back home after they recognized his voice on ESPN SportsCenter segments about Taiwanese baseball.
For Rob Liu, who runs the English-language CPBL Stats blog, the surge in interest in Taiwanese pro baseball has also been a huge boon. Traffic to his site has increased about 10 times this month, he said, most of that coming from the US. It’s also a welcome and long-delayed moment in the sun for Taiwanese pro baseball, which he said was “like the biggest secret baseball league in the world that nobody knows about.”
Taiwanese baseball has traditionally lacked the international attention received by baseball in Japan, and to a lesser extent, Korea. Baseball took root in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation of the island, which lasted from 1895 to 1945. The professional league has been around for 31 years, but it was for long dogged by match-fixing scandals which sent interest and attendance plummeting, only enjoying a resurgence in recent years.
In the international arena, Taiwanese baseball is mostly recognized for its success in the Little League World Series, played in the US every summer. Five Taiwanese players currently play in Major League Baseball (MLB) in the US. Taiwan competes internationally as “Chinese Taipei” due to complications linked to international recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state, while the word “Chinese” in the pro league’s name reflects the official name of Taiwan, the Republic of China.
The lack of familiarity with Taiwanese baseball was no obstacle for fans like Matthew Mory, a 46-year-old in Pennsylvania who recently woke up to watch a game between the defending champions Rakuten Monkeys and the Fubon Guardians. Mory said he tuned in especially because “American baseball is suspended, and I’m missing it so much.” Though it was strange to watch baseball in another country and with the stands empty, he said it was also interesting to see a familiar name in the Guardians’ pitcher, Henry Sosa, a former MLB player.
McNeill said some other aspects of Taiwanese baseball foreign viewers might find interesting include the much lighter and more “respectful” atmosphere of matches. “It’s more of a family thing, they cheer and sing songs for the players. In [the MLB], all people want is for their team to win, they don’t care how that team wins.”
For Taiwan, the significance of such international attention is not limited to the scope of sports. Baseball has long been a soft-power tool for Taiwan, with its Little League success in the 1970s particularly important at a time when countries around the world, including the US, dropped diplomatic ties with Taipei for Beijing (though they were later caught cheating with overage players). President Tsai Ing-wen, for example, jumped at the chance to promote Taiwanese baseball on Twitter when ESPN host Keith Olbermann recently tweeted about “live baseball” being available in Taiwan.
It’s certainly left an impression on Mike, the Orioles fan, who said he would continue following the CPBL even once US games resume. One thing that caught his attention, he said, was the cheerleaders who were eating hotpot with the mannequins. “The food looks absolutely amazing.”
With much of the world’s baseball fans still remaining in some form of lockdown for the foreseeable future, James Lin, a representative of the CPBL’s international affairs division, said that the Taiwan league is a sort of light at the end of the tunnel. “It shows that it’s possible to contain the situation, and to return to some semblance of normality.”