2020 / January
Sharleen Su /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell
The 2019 Premier 12 baseball tournament, organized by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, served as a qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Though initially not favored to do well, Taiwan’s national team, Chinese Taipei, played with discipline, intelligence, and indomitable willpower, turning in a performance that brought the entire nation to a fever pitch. The squad now once again ranks among the world’s top five, and is on the march toward competing at the Tokyo Games.
Every time a high-level international baseball competition comes around, baseball fans in Taiwan all become expert “managers” directing the national team.
On the evening of November 12, as part of the Super Round of the Premier 12, Chinese Taipei took on their fierce rival South Korea in Chiba, Japan. The “managers” delivered their message to the team: You have to beat Korea! Taiwanese baseball fans living in Japan set out the bottom line for the tournament: You can lose to anyone else, but you mustn’t lose to Korea!
These high expectations all fell on the shoulders of the Taiwanese team, led by manager Hong I-chung. From the first inning on, the team had luck on its side, and it picked up momentum as the contest wore on. When Chen Chun-hsiu hit a three-run home run in the top of the seventh inning, the crowd went wild, and in the end Chinese Taipei shut out their opponents 7:0. Fans at the park shouted for joy amidst a sea of waving flags. This was the first time in history that Taiwan had defeated Korea in a high-level competition, adding a bonus layer of satisfaction to the team’s fine overall performance in the Premier 12.
Because the 2019 Premier 12 offered the opportunity for direct entry into the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, the Taiwanese team was under tremendous pressure to succeed. Although following the Super Round, Taiwan had still not punched its ticket to the Tokyo Games, observers considered the team’s performance to be outstanding; it was hard to find fault with their effort and they even exceeded expectations.
“Before the Premier 12 Opening Round, nobody gave our team much of a chance,” says Feng Sheng-hsien, secretary-general of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), who was tasked with organizing and training the team for the event. They hit road blocks right from the start, when they sought a manager for the team, and encountered many difficulties in the organizing and training process. In particular, from the time he began to put together the national team last year, Feng repeatedly invited Hong I-chung to be manager. But it took half a year, until July 2019, before Hong accepted, putting aside his fears for his reputation and taking on this heavy responsibility for the country.
“I came up as a player, and was on the national team for four years, so I know there’s tremendous pressure in putting on the manager’s uniform.” During the 1999 Asian Baseball Championship, which was a qualifying event for the 2000 Olympics, Feng missed a catch and became the target of widespread criticism. As for Hong, he was heavily castigated when he managed the team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Both men have painful memories of being pilloried over defeats.
That is why for this most recent Premier 12 competition Feng put top priority on putting players’ minds at ease. Many players worried that if they made a mistake when competing for the national team, people across the country would berate them. “Our guiding principle for organizing the team was simple: There is only the national team, with no distinction between players who are based in Japan, the US, or Taiwan.” The whole team would face its challenges together and share in the outcome of winning or losing.
After hiring Hong, Feng Sheng-hsien brought in big-name former players including Peng Cheng-min (nicknamed Cha Cha) and Wang Chien-ming as coaches, giving further peace of mind to younger players. “Finding a player in the class of Wang Chien-ming to pass along his knowledge to the next generation also helped the younger players overcome their anxiety.”
Cha Cha took on the job of batting coach while Wang served as bullpen coach. During the competition young pitchers headed for the bullpen, vying for the chance to “let Chien-ming adjust my throwing motion” and to get advice from the man known as “the pride of Taiwan.” Cha Cha was also surrounded by players seeking to benefit from his rich hitting experience. After input from the coaches, there was a marked improvement in the players’ skills.
Home run! Coming back against Korea
As for the game against South Korea, it was said that before the match the Koreans didn’t take Taiwan seriously. When a reporter asked Korean manager Kim Kyung-moon what his strategy was, Kim replied that the team was only focused on the US and Japan. Clearly he didn’t consider Taiwan a worthy foe, which got Hong I-chung well and truly riled up.
The Premier 12 event proved that Taiwan was capable of shutting out Korea, defeating Australia, and even making it back into the “world’s top five” national baseball teams. The tournament highlighted the manager’s ability to improvise and make adjustments. In particular, Hong’s judgments were decisive, he trusted his players, and he held up under outside pressure. It’s no wonder that netizens have been praising him as a brilliant strategist.
Players in the Premier 12 tournament had just completed full baseball seasons in their professional leagues and were somewhat tired. Pitcher Chiang Shao-ching had to undergo emergency treatment for a groin strain before starting Game 1 of the competition. Feng Sheng-hsien recalls, “During the game Chiang had to continually apply hot compresses, and it was really moving to see him stick it out.” In Chiba, the competition was intense, the pressure enormous, and the weather very cold. Add in the fact that the games were played on artificial turf, and the team ended up with six or seven of its nine starters suffering leg cramps. Some players even begged Feng to give them capsicum plasters (warm pain-relief patches) in hopes of escaping these agonizing cramps. In the end, for the sake of their country, the players competed by sheer willpower.
A large support staff
In order to protect the players’ welfare, for the Premier 12 the team management mobilized a large group of doctors, physical therapists, and athletic trainers, and for the first time even assigned a licensed counselor to the squad. Moreover, because baseball is a sport with “kinetic chain” motions, they hired sports science expert Lin Wei-hsuan, who did advanced study with the Arizona Diamondbacks of US Major League Baseball, to serve as the team’s strength and conditioning coach.
Another set of behind-the-scenes heroes contributing to Chinese Taipei’s success was the 16-person scouting and information team. In addition, the CPBL spent NT$6 million to commission a player information system. This system can accurately record pitch location for each player in real time, in a nine-square grid of the strike zone, and afterwards the scouting team and players (especially catchers) can watch and analyze the results, making pitch selection into a science. It takes nearly six hours for a catcher and coach to complete each analysis, and then make a sort of “cheat sheet” on the catcher’s wristband. These densely packed notes, looking like a language from outer space, often make the difference between victory and defeat.
“Since Premier 12, the international baseball community has ranked Chinese Taipei as a premier-level team, on a par with Japan, South Korea, and the United States,” observes Richard Lin, secretary-general of the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association.
Next, Taiwan will compete in the Olympic Final Qualifying Tournament, with six teams fighting for one remaining spot in the 2020 Games. The way to win the tournament is easily stated, but hard to do: the Taiwanese team must defeat every opponent. Facing this next challenge, Feng Sheng-hsien says, “If we can defeat Korea, we can definitely make it into the Olympics.” The players of Taiwan’s national team will undoubtedly do their best to win that place in the 2020 Tokyo Games!