Baseball helps restore Taiwan’s battered pride

When Su Chih-chieh, a rising star at Taiwanese baseball team Uni Lions, took a spectacular sliding catch against Brothers on Thursday, his feat was met with almost total silence.

The stands in the 12,000-seat stadium may have been empty, but the grinning 25-year-old outfielder had a far bigger audience elsewhere: more than 580,000 people abroad watched an English-language broadcast of the match.

The suspension of this year’s Major League Baseball season in the US forced by the coronavirus pandemic has left Taiwan — which contained the outbreak early and avoided lockdowns — the only country still playing professional baseball. 

The yearning of diehard fans in the west for their beloved game has catapulted the Uni Lions and the three other teams in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) into the international limelight.

Lockdowns in the US and Europe have turned the sports world upside down. With football leagues shut down in western Europe, the Belarusian premier league is attracting viewers who normally follow Real Madrid or Manchester United.

But in Taiwan, the unexpected attention has had an emotional and political impact. Here, “baseball is a vehicle of national pride and identity in a very unusual way”, said Andrew Morris, a professor at California Polytechnic State University who has written a book on the history of baseball in the country. “It marks them for being different from China.” 

Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to invade if Taipei resists unification indefinitely, casting a permanent pall over this otherwise thriving country of 24m. But Taiwan has won international praise for its success in containing coronavirus. There have been just 429 confirmed cases and six deaths.

Now the sudden interest in Taiwan baseball has created another chance to build soft power and ease its China-imposed isolation.

Eleven Sports, a global sports TV company, began English-language broadcasts when the CPBL season started last month. The 11 games it broadcast on Twitter have been watched more than 8.6m times — even though viewers on the US east coast have to get up at 6.30am to watch, and those further west in the middle of the night.

In Taiwan, that brings back fond memories of baseball fame in hard times half a century ago. Between 1969 and 1996, Taiwanese teams won the Little League World Series 17 times. To watch their boys play in Pennsylvania, Taiwanese had to get up in the early hours as well.

“There was only one small black-and-white TV set in the neighbourhood, in the corner shop. We would all get up at 2am and cram in there,” said Jason Chang, a 58-year-old from Taipei, recalling Little League matches in the early 1970s. “The picture was blurry and the signal would often cut out, but we felt so proud.”

Taiwan’s longest Little League winning stretch was in the 1970s — just as it lost its international recognition to Beijing. In 1971, Taipei was expelled from the UN and in 1979 the US switched diplomatic ties to China.

“Baseball was what saved us,” recalled Mr Chang. “It was so soothing. Countries were abandoning us one after another and we felt all alone, but there our boys were in America, for all to see.”

Baseball helped define national identity in Taiwan long before that era. The game was brought to Taiwan by Japan, which ruled the island between 1895 and 1945. According to Prof Morris, Japan introduced the sport to the Taiwanese in the 1920s in an effort to make its brand of colonialism more inclusive.

Following Japan’s defeat in the second world war, Kuomintang — China’s then ruling party, took over Taiwan. It used baseball as a symbol of the strength and health of the Chinese nation and continued to propagate that theme even after it lost the mainland to the Communist party. 

The now ruling Democratic Progressive party has again claimed baseball as a symbol of a Taiwanese nation and is trying to take advantage of the international interest in Taiwan baseball.

Editor’s note

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“Hello to friends from all over the world! Thanks for staying up late or getting up early to cheer for the first hit with us in Taiwan,” President Tsai Ing-wen wrote on Twitter last month.

She tweeted at ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann, asking him to watch the game and greeted him as a fellow alumnus of Cornell University.

Mr Olbermann has given Taiwan baseball a boost. “Nothing has gotten me to rise even somewhat happily in the morning since I worked a day shift at CNN in 1981-84,” he tweeted. “I’m getting up for this.”

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