In Taiwan, professional baseball is back. Games are played in empty stadiums with piped-in crowd noise and, in some cases, mannequin fans — but they are a reminder of the importance of sports in people’s lives, and of what normal can feel like.
For many Americans, spring means baseball. Yet this year, the bleachers remain empty and the peanut gallery quiet, as the Major League Baseball season remains postponed due to COVID-19. If you want to catch MLB players, seemingly the only place to do it is on livestream, as they play a virtual season on the video game MLB The Show.
But fans itching for the real thing shouldn’t despair: Professional baseball is being played right now, albeit slightly farther afield.
Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) began its 31st season on Sunday (Opening Day was scheduled for Saturday, but rain changed those plans), and will continue through late October. The league has captured the attention of sports fans around the world, and even has a ringing endorsement from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén):
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) April 13, 2020
The league has four teams: the Chinatrust Brothers, Fubon Guardians, Rakuten Monkeys, and Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions. A fifth expansion team, the Wei Chuan Dragons, is scheduled to play this season in the CPBL’s minor league, but will move up to the majors next year.
Although pitchers only hit triple digits on their fastballs when measured in kilometers, the quality of play in the CPBL is decent. It’s a hitter-friendly league, meaning scoreboards often light up and no leads are safe — as if every game were played at Coors Field. Baserunning can be aggressive. Errors are common, to viewers’ delight.
There’s already been drama: On Wednesday, the Rakuten Monkeys beat the Uni-President Lions 9-8 behind three home runs from Chu Yu-Hsien (朱育贤 Zhū Yùxián), the league’s reigning MVP.
Chu’s third home run was a walk-off in the bottom of the 12th inning:
For those unsure of who to root for, the fansite CPBL Stats (who you should follow on Twitter) has created a guide to the 2020 season. CPBL Stats circles the Brothers and the Guardians as talented teams with balanced hitting and pitching. The Monkeys, they say, are bombers: all hitting and no pitching (Chu, who plays for the Monkeys, hit another home run today). As for the Lions? Well, they seem to have youth and heart.
But if you’re choosing your team based off of loveability, the Brothers’ elephant mascot should win your support. The elephant wears a pink mask, a touching gesture of solidarity with a young Taiwanese boy who was bullied for wearing a pink mask to school.
— Alexander Boyd 李乐 (@alboyd_aka_LiLe) April 14, 2020
The Brothers also boast a name that will be familiar to American fans: Chien-Ming Wang (王建民 Wáng Jiànmín), who is the team’s pitching coach. Wang, whose last game in the U.S. was in 2016 with the Kansas City Royals, started his career with the New York Yankees, and was the team’s ace for two glorious seasons in 2006 — when he led the American League with 19 wins — and 2007. He reached icon status in his native Taiwan during this time.
There is one aspect of the experience that isn’t the same. Baseball in Taiwan is usually a raucous affair, but for the time being, games are being played in empty stadiums.
Still, there are hints of the rock-and-roll atmosphere that defines baseball on the island. While the Brothers are at the plate, their cheer team, the Passion Sisters, dance along to chants pumped through the PA system. Fans are also no less vocal online. The comments on the Twitch stream are filled with “777,” the Taiwanese version of the mainland’s “666,” which means “awesome” (厉害 lìhài).
The Rakuten Monkeys have even filled their stands with mask-wearing cardboard cutouts and animatronic wig-wearing drummers. Monkeys general manager Justin Liu (劉玠廷 Liú Jiètíng) is quoted by CPBL Stats as saying, “Since we are not allowed to have any fans in attendance, we might as well have some fun with it.”
Although you wouldn’t know it now, professional baseball almost died in Taiwan in 1996 in the aftermath of a match-fixing scandal. The affair culminated when a gang kidnapped four Brothers’ players (even pistol-whipping a pitcher), convinced that they had been bought off by a rival gambling syndicate.
Today, baseball in Taiwan is a joyous thing. After a while, even the empty stadiums bring out other charms. Viewers can hear the benches react to inside pitches with a drawn-out “Ohhhhhh.” The audio feed picks up coaches’ instructions. Cheers reverberate. Professional athletes, who can seem downright Herculean when they’re performing in the center of legions of rabid fans, become mortal when playing in front of empty seats.
Baseball is back and, for the most part, it is normal. The only player wearing a mask is the catcher.