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Original Issue

going to bat for taiwan

A new team of extraordinary kids from the Republic of China heads for the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. hoping to win a fourth consecutive title for the baseball-crazy homeland

as far as anyone knows, the woman had always been a well-behaved housewife, calm and dignified in the manner of her people. It was not until her active pre-teen son joined the Little League that her emotions began to go out of control and finally led her one hot afternoon some weeks ago to brandish a dangerous implement at a full-grown man.

Her son's team was engaged in a close game in the regional playoffs when a teammate attempted to advance from second to third on a routine outfield fly. The centerfielder caught the ball and threw it to second, where the runner was doubled up, having left the bag a twinkling of an eye too soon. A mighty rhubarb ensued, with noisy assistance from the teams' adult rooting sections.

It was then that the housewife, armed with an umbrella, left her seat behind the bench, strode onto the diamond and struck a pose reminiscent of Zorro with his sword. She was already in fierce debate with the plate umpire when the true object of her displeasure, his second-base counterpart, wandered haplessly into her field of vision. She wheeled on him and began scoring near misses on his eyes, ears, nose and throat with the long chrome-plated tip of her umbrella.

"[Chinese characters]," she said, the weapon whistling swiftly past the ump's scalp.

"[Chinese characters]!" she added, just in case he thought she was kidding. Then Mrs. Tsai grabbed her little Pai-jew by his throwing arm and retreated with her umbrella held high, declaring as she faded into the crowd that there was no way a conscientious mother could let a good boy like Pai-jew play under these unfair circumstances.

This very American scene happened not in Kankakee or Keokuk but in Kaohsiung, a port city near the southern tip of the island of Taiwan. Nothing unusual about it, either. The only surprises were that a Chinese Little Leaguer could be inept enough to tag up too soon on a fly ball and that the umbrella woman didn't crack the umpire on the head. For in Taiwan the quality of Little League baseball is the best in the world—so decisively the best during the last five years that some Americans have charged the Chinese with cheating. The triumphs of their young players have made Taiwan as baseball-crazy as Brooklyn in the heyday of the Dodgers. It's easy to see why. Taiwan's often lopsided victories against foreign teams have been just about the only international triumphs for the Republic of China in an era during which it is being tossed ignominiously out of everything from the United Nations to the International Basketball Federation to make room for the People's Republic on the mainland.

The baseball mania will be at fever point next week when the Little League World Series is played at Williamsport, Pa. All three of the R.O.C.'s television networks plan to carry live satellite coverage and almost every one of Taiwan's 1.5 million TV sets is sure to be tuned in, even though the contests will start at 3 a.m. Taipei time. Newspapers will hold their presses in order to run game analyses in morning editions, and trains will delay departure so they can carry the papers into the hinterlands.

Almost certainly the news will be good, setting off another of the thunderous, predawn explosions of firecrackers and street celebrations that have marked every R.O.C. victory in the World Series since 1969. That year the Chinese won their first championship, an event that stunned no one more than the home folks since that was also the first season there had been formal Little League competition on the island. Except for 1970, when the Chinese won the Far East tournament but were bumped 3-2 by Nicaragua at Williamsport, Taiwan has not lost since.

Its victories in 1971 and 1972 were merely impressive; the 1973 win by the Tainan Giants was downright embarrassing. In the opener of that Series, 11-year-old Huang Ching-hui threw a perfect game at a team of U.S. military dependents from Bitburg (West Germany) Air Force Base and Taiwan won 18-0, even though it did nothing but bunt in its last two turns at bat. The Giants had more no-hit pitching, five home runs and 21 hits in their second-round 27-0 win over Tampa, Fla. Huang came back with yet another no-hitter against Tucson, Ariz. in the championship game, Taiwan scoring all its runs in the final three innings to take the title 12-0. In the three games, Taiwan outscored its opponents 57-0 and outhit them 43-0. The Giants had a team batting average of .417 and a team ERA of 0.00. They struck out 46 of the 56 batters who came up against them, while walking only two. And in the minor statistical categories, Taiwan was decidedly major league. Its opposition committed typical Little League totals of 13 errors, 10 wild pitches and 15 passed balls; Taiwan had one error and none of the other misplays. As a final insult, the only player who attempted to steal against the Giants was cut down at second base.

Combined with its 87-1 scoring margin over its five opponents in the Far East playoff preceding Williamsport, Taiwan's performance in the World Series seemed to confirm suspicions that it was not playing by the same rules as other countries. Certainly the crowds in Williamsport, which had favored past Chinese teams, thought so and began to harshly boo the Giants. Adult Little League volunteers on hand for the Series accused the Chinese of violating every stipulation in the rule book regarding the players' ages and the districting of leagues. One man even said in apparent seriousness that he thought the Taiwan team was composed of midget professionals hired by Chiang Kai-shek especially to humiliate the United States. The Little League's paid president, Peter J. McGovern, refused to pass judgment on the eligibility of Taiwan's players or the correctness of its organization. Shortly thereafter he quietly announced that he would send a committee to study the R.O.C.'s Little League program.

The investigators' report has never been released, but Roy Reiner, a past president of the Hong Kong Little League and one of the men sent to look into the Taiwan situation, says the infractions detected by the committee were largely the same ones found in most non-U.S. Little League organizations. No major violations were uncovered.

Little League rules require that a player be between nine and 12 years old when the season begins, and the most serious of the unsubstantiated violations charged against Taiwan at Williamsport was that its boys were overage. American coaches not only were surprised that the Tainan team performed like a bunch of 20-year-olds, they were startled that the Chinese players were for the first time the biggest in the Series and that several of the alleged 12-year-olds were taller than their coaches. The Giants were not unusual in that regard. Many Taiwanese youngsters are bigger than their parents, primarily because they have grown up eating more meat and dairy foods than any previous Chinese generation. And the coaches' complaints about size failed to take into account the performance of tiny Cheng Pai-sheng, the 4'11", 95-pound infielder who was the Giants' most impressive hitter with a .733 average and three homers.

In fact, the U.S. skeptics could have put the entire age question to rest if they had asked the Giants to show them the government ID cards the boys are required to carry at all times. As Reiner's committee found out, Chiang's China has one of the world's most thorough census and residency registration systems. Each child is issued a card upon entering school. The penalty for tampering with an ID is one year in jail, a sentence stiff enough to make Little League officials loth to fiddle with them. And Reiner discovered no indications that changes on ID cards were being made with the government's blessings.

The infractions found by the investigators pertained mostly to the size of districts and the use of schoolteachers as managers. The teams that finally make it through the district, state and regional playoffs to Williamsport are supposed to be made up of children from the same local league. For example, the players on last year's Tampa team were from that city's Belmont Heights area, and this season's Taiwan representatives are all from a league based in the east side of Kaohsiung. According to the rules, a district ideally should not encompass more than 15,000 people. And teachers who serve as managers or coaches are considered "professionals" by the Little League, which prefers that other volunteers, usually fathers of boys playing in the league, run the teams.

The rules on districting and managing were devised for small-town and suburban America and are usually broken or sidestepped in foreign countries and even in some large U.S. cities. In such places there are often not enough baseball-playing youngsters and almost invariably not enough money to support a league on the required population base. And foreign fathers generally have neither the time nor the inclination to become involved with children's baseball.

Taiwan's Little League officials were embarrassed by their lopsided win last year and distressed that the Americans felt a need to investigate. "I am sorry; we were too strong," Hsieh Kuo-cheng, the harassed-looking president of the island's baseball association, has apologized repeatedly. To placate Little League headquarters, the R.O.C. readily agreed to nearly double its number of districts to 41 this year and to curtail the use of teacher-managers. The Kaohsiung team that will appear in Williamsport this week is managed by a sporting-goods salesman and coached by a photographer. In fact, the Chinese apparently have gone beyond the rules to prove their good intentions. Huang, the perfect-game pitcher of last August's world champions, did not play this season, even though he was still eligible. Officials say an eye disease kept him off the diamond, but one well-informed source in Taiwan says Huang was held out because his family moved from Tainan to Taipei. The Chinese were concerned that if Huang turned up at Williamsport next week pitching for a different city, the U.S. would accuse them of moving their best players around in order to pack all of them in one district.

"Our report to Williamsport presented three possible solutions," Reiner says. "One was that they could kick out Taiwan for its violations, but that would have meant tossing out most of the Little League's other foreign members. Two was to allow them in international competition only once every two years, but again that would have meant applying the same rule to everyone else. Three was to find some way to beat them."

Wisely, Williamsport has chosen the last of these alternatives. Coming up with a way to do it next week may be less difficult because Taiwan is obeying the rules more closely. It may be further simplified since Huang will not be there pitching and the island's best active Little Leaguer, Tainan's extraordinary Shortstop-Pitcher Wang Ching-chung, will not be there hitting his long home runs. And it may even be possible because the Kaohsiung team that will represent Taiwan this year is probably not the island's best. But still it will not be easy, for the Chinese success is the result of things the Little League cannot—and probably would not care to—legislate against.

In the high hill country 25 kilometers and an entire culture away from the modern east coast city of Taitung, a slate monument the size of a small tombstone stands in the middle of a muddy school yard, THIS VILLAGE MADE BASEBALL GREAT read the gold characters etched into the slab, which is surrounded by life-sized metal silhouettes of a pitcher, a catcher and a batter mounted on corroding pipes. The hamlet, a cluster of about 50 shabby houses, most of them with thatched roofs, is called Hung Yeh—in English, Red Leaf.

The road to Red Leaf winds its un-paved way up the coast through tangerine groves, small villages-with two or three open-front stores, yangtao vines and pineapple fields. It is an obstacle course of razorlike shards of shale, abrupt inclines, hair-raising hairpin turns, rockslides and hub-deep quagmires passable during the rainy season only to off-the-road vehicles. Its traffic includes water buffalo, ox carts and vehicles whose drivers are disciples of Evel Knievel. The trip to Red Leaf is a tough one, and it's even tougher getting out.

Most of the village's inhabitants are Taiwanese aborigines, people of Malay stock who sailed to the island hundreds of years before the Chinese, Japanese or Europeans—all of whom began taking an interest in Taiwan at roughly the same time—ever settled there. Like most conquered native peoples, the aborigines have been left with the worst land—the most vertical mountain acres—and little money. Many of them still live by a barter economy, and rare is the aboriginal son who manages to escape his lather's life of subsistence farming.

One who did get away was C.K. Yang, who came out of a village not far from Red Leaf to attend UCLA and finish a close second to Rafer Johnson in the 1960 Olympic decathlon. Yang was Taiwan's most admired athletic hero until 1968, when Red Leaf's team set off the baseball boom that has yielded Taiwan's only international sports championships.

Baseball has been played in Taiwan for about 50 years, arriving there courtesy of the Japanese who controlled the island from 1895 to 1945. Many of the diamonds built early in that period were plowed up to grow crops during World War II; this was fine with the Chiang government which reacquired Taiwan for China in 1945 and moved there in 1949. Baseball was certainly not the mainlanders' game, and if they did nothing to discourage it, they did less than nothing to encourage it.

It is more than a little ironic that the Chiang government, which still includes almost no Taiwan-born citizens in the upper echelons of its armed forces or administration, has had to rely on the people who inhabited the island before 1949 for its most conspicuous moments of international glory. The pre-'49 citizens and their children, who constitute 85% of Taiwan's population of 15.5 million, have never held any particular affection for the post-'49 group. There had been peace, relative prosperity and corruption-free government under the Japanese in the years immediately preceding World War II. When the mainland Chinese returned in 1945, they brought with them a tradition of government by squeeze and a decidedly colonial attitude toward the Taiwanese. In 1947 the island's people rioted against the new administration, and Chiang's soldiers put down the disturbances by killing between 10,000 and 20,000 Taiwanese in a two-week period.

That incident has never been forgotten—or forgiven. It has been difficult to bridge the gap between the two groups because Taiwan was not involved in the political jousts that marked the first half of this century on the mainland. Certainly there have been no grass-roots movements to bring back the Japanese, but there also has been little sincere enthusiasm below the highest levels for returning to the mainland. According to most observers, what the Taiwanese would like is independence. Free Taiwan groups are active in Japan, Europe and the U.S.

Oddly, the baseball-playing sons of just those independence-minded pre-'49 people were among the few sources of ready solace when the change in America's China policy left the Chiang government in shocked disbelief.

There is some consolation for the R.O.C. in seeing Taiwanese teams knock America's block off at its own game. Which helps to explain the long parades through downtown Taipei that have become an August tradition, with the players standing like war heroes in jeeps. Prime Minister Chiang Ching-kuo has received the boys in the Executive Yuan (Cabinet). There have been scholarships for Series winners and Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang have congratulated the winning teams in person.

There would have been no such affairs had it not been for small boys like those in Red Leaf who learned baseball using sticks for bats and stones for balls, and a few Taiwan-born, Japanese-educated adults. Between them they kept the game alive on the island in the postwar years.

One of the men was Hsieh Kuo-cheng, who played right field for his Taiwanese primary school in the '30s and later attended Waseda University, the Notre Dame of Japan's favorite college sport, baseball. In 1948 Hsieh and 14 other fans contributed $200 apiece to start the Taiwan baseball association. There were about half a dozen men's teams and an equal number for boys using the island's four remaining diamonds.

The game grew slowly for the next 20 seasons and Hsieh, who has been head of the association since its inception, remembers times when the national tournament was staged simply by laying down the bases in a city park. And little boys did not play the real game at all. Baseballs were too expensive. Until less than a year before their first win at Williamsport, Taiwanese kids played exclusively with rubber balls.

In 1968 Red Leaf won the island's rubber-ball championship and with it the right to face a visiting team of Japanese youngsters who had agreed to a series using Taiwan's ball. Red Leaf's victory, one of the few by a Taiwanese team over Japan in any sport, was cause for island-wide celebration. The losers compounded their defeat by leaving behind several dozen baseballs for their hosts to practice with and suggesting to Hsieh that his country join the Little League. The idea turned out to be a grand one for the slight, bespectacled Hsieh, who has been able to capitalize on his reputation as "Mr. Baseball." In one of the island's rare "national" elections, he ran a campaign using literature designed to resemble baseballs and became one of the very few Taiwan-born men ever to win a seat in the Legislative Yuan, the R.O.C.'s equivalent in prestige, if not in power, of the U.S. Senate. For Japan, which used to have a team at Williamsport almost every year and twice won the World Series, the suggestion was less fortunate. It has been losing to Taiwan in the Far East regional tournament ever since.

The baseball craze that Red Leaf's win set in motion has come back to haunt the village. Except for an overgrown diamond, the stone marker, the silhouettes and the plans for a $13,000 monument to baseball that the country plans to build there, no trace of the game remains in the village. The formalities of establishing a Little League program and the expense of all the Japanese-made Isono baseballs that would be needed to keep it going are too much for Red Leaf. Only three boys from the village still play. They must walk far down the mountain to the town of Taoyüan to do so.

Baseball has carried another of Red Leaf's young sons much further. Yu Hung-kai has broad, sloping shoulders, a thick neck and a massive chest; were he not barely 5½ feet tall, he would be a copper-colored replica of the young Mickey Mantle. Yu was raised in Wulin, a sub-hamlet of Red Leaf, but this cheerful 15-year-old with his black hair cut in the severe Marine Corps style is already a world traveler. Yu was on the rubber-ball team that defeated Japan and he was given two of those precious baseballs. He used them well. By the end of the next summer he was at Williamsport playing third base for Taiwan's first world champs. In the third inning of the opening game, Yu singled, stole second and third, and came home on a hit to score the first of the many runs that the Chinese have pushed across on that Pennsylvania diamond. Last August he was back in the U.S. playing center field at Gary, Ind., home of the Senior League World Series. Senior League is an extension of the Little League system for boys 13 to 15. Taiwan has had a team at Gary the past two summers and, of course, won both times. Last year's club did not allow a run in its three-game sweep to the title.

Yu's two appearances on championship teams have made him a double hero back home. He no longer lives up in the mountains; instead he boards at Taipei's prestigious Huahsing school. Yu was sent there on a scholarship from Madame Chiang and it was in her office at the school, of which she is the board chairman, that he was recently interviewed.

"Sure, baseball has changed my life," he said. "My brother is one of the few players left in Red Leaf, but he'll never have a chance to come to this school. I wouldn't have either if we hadn't won in Williamsport. It's changed my whole environment. I'm learning things and meeting people I never would've known. And I'll have more opportunities in the future. I probably would've grown up to be a poor farmer in the hills like my father if I hadn't played baseball."

Surprisingly, Yu did not touch a ball this spring or summer, even though his ambition is to become a professional player, preferably in the U.S. (America's first Taiwanese pro, 24-year-old Pitcher Tan Shin-ming, has signed with the San Francisco Giants and is playing for their Fresno farm team. He certainly will not be the last.) This was Yu's ninth-grade year and, like many other R.O.C. adolescents, he gave up all extracurricular activities to study for the tough, highly competitive entrance examinations to upper middle school. That alone says plenty about the seriousness of Chinese youngsters. Because Yu and most players on the island have applied similar intensity to baseball, they can easily afford a year off from training.

"I can remember getting up at five in the morning and walking down the mountain to play before school in Red Leaf," he says. "We usually had ball games in the afternoon, too, and sometimes we'd forget about classes and play straight through the day. The coach was around only half the time, so I guess it could be said that the boys on the first team that beat Japan were about half taught and half self-taught. I know we taught ourselves to use the real baseball. At first I was afraid of it, not so much of being hit by a pitch as of being stung by a grounder. Adapting wasn't too tough, though, once I got used to the lower bounces. And I liked hitting the baseball right away because it goes farther than the rubber one.

"After we won the '69 Series and I came to school here, practice became more organized. We still play a lot among ourselves during the off-season except when it's winter, but that's not as tough as the spring when the coaches are looking on. Every day I get about 40 swings in batting practice. Then they hit about 40 flies to each of the outfielders and 40 grounders to each infielder. That's the minimum, I'd say. If you make a couple of errors, they might end up hitting you 80. Until this spring I practiced like that every day during the baseball season for the last four years."

Not all young Taiwanese players drill as rigorously as the boys at the Huahsing school, but without question almost all of them practice longer and harder than their American counterparts. It is an element of the Chinese life-style, in sports, politics, education and in other things as well.

"I don't remember any kids playing baseball when I was a teen-ager there in the late '50s, but at the Taipei American School we competed against the local boys in soccer and volleyball," says Mike McGrath, who attended high school in Taipei as a U.S. military dependent, returned there during his own stint in the armed forces and is now wrapping up a doctorate in Chinese studies at Princeton. "They really worked their butts off. We'd train every day for an hour. They always practiced more than that and did more homework, too. They invariably beat us.

"It wasn't the longer practices alone that did it. They also applied themselves better in training. It is simply that their lives are more regimented and diligence is probably more highly prized. The Chinese have—and always have had—something very much like the Calvinist ethic, except they leave out the part about ceaseless quest for profit."

In Little League the effects of that intensity are enhanced by the fact that young Taiwanese ballplayers rarely participate in other competitive sports, by the subtropical climate that allows them to practice year-round and by the public mania that has been spurred on by the government. The game has become an intrinsic part of the island's psyche, holding out the promise of fame to boys who otherwise would have little hope of rising above the anonymous welter of Chinese society. For a baseball purist the product of all these forces is a joy to behold.

The hitter, his translucent ecru skin shining in the afternoon sun, approaches the right-hand batter's box. With an exaggerated nod of his head and a quick two-fingered salute he greets the white-gloved umpire and steps in. He grinds his nylon cleats into the damp clay next to the plate, grips his purple aluminum bat four inches up from the knob, takes a few short level practice swings and settles into a compact stance to await the pitch.

The pitcher, also a righthander, stands on the rubber and looks in for a sign. He shakes off his catcher once, then rocks into a no-windup delivery and fires at a target set tight in on the batter's hands. The pitch is a fastball.

The particulars of this scene are repeated over and over in Taiwan Little League games. From the courtesy to the umpire to the fastball designed to jam the batter there is a marked similarity in technique among virtually all the island's players, including right-handedness. It seems there are not many Chinese lefties, at least not many of them who play baseball. This fact has become a source of some comfort for Taiwan's international rivals, who have a hunch the world champs can be had by a left-handed curveballer because they rarely see one. There is some substance to this notion since two years ago Hong Kong was being thoroughly bombed in the Asian playoffs when it brought in a lefty who shut out the Taiwanese for a couple of innings with off-speed pitches. In 1973's final World Series game, Tucson's left-handed breaking-bailer Mike Fimbers held Taiwan scoreless for three innings, before a combination of a three-run Taiwan rally and an asthma attack knocked him out after the fourth.