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Tea Leaves

Taiwan's diplomatic home run

For a brief and glorious moment, baseball puts the island at center of world sport

I have been to my fair share of baseball games in the United States, but a recent match-up in Taiwan will be one of my most memorable -- even though it involved the two worst-performing teams in Taiwan’s top professional league.

The May 8 game, between New Taipei City’s Fubon Guardians and Tainan’s Uni-President Lions, was the world’s first major professional sporting event in the era of coronavirus to be staged with fans in the stands -- socially distanced, of course. When I arrived, Taiwanese and international media were busy photographing the first of 1,000 fans allowed to enter the stadium, which can seat 12,500.

For Taiwanese, the return of cheering spectators highlights the island’s success in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. But the baseball league is also doing for the island what table tennis did for China in the early 1970s. Just as “Red China” was humanized by its ping pong  team at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, baseball is helping millions of sports fans around the world to see Taiwanese people’s distinct identity. That is a major contrast with the notion of Taiwan as an abstract geopolitical dispute between Washington and Beijing: the U.S. counts Taiwan as an unofficial ally, while China threatens to use force to annex it.

Before I entered the stands, stadium staff took my temperature, sprayed my hands with sanitizer and led me to a designated media area on the first level, behind home plate and the seats reserved for the Fubon Angels, the home team’s cheerleaders. The Angels were the only people in the stadium not wearing masks. Everyone sat at least two seats apart, which prompted numerous “air high-fives” when the Guardians scored.

Before the opening pitch, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen spoke to the crowd on a massive screen, lauding the frontline health workers whose efforts have allowed life to continue in a state closer to normal than in most countries. Taiwan discovered its first case on Jan. 21 -- the same day as the first U.S. case -- but had recorded only 443 infections and seven deaths by June 1.

Caught in a diplomatic limbo in which most of the world’s countries do not officially recognize its government and de facto independence, Taiwan has in recent decades found itself increasingly isolated by China’s Communist Party. Its handling of the pandemic has helped to change that, putting the island in the international spotlight. Alongside that, the indefinite cancellation of most global professional sport has put Taiwan’s baseball league on the radar of sports fans.

Sensing an opportunity to broaden their fan bases, teams in the four-team league have launched online English-language broadcasts that are getting millions of views. Tsai, who has more than 1 million Twitter followers, has tweeted multiple times about the league, and Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, an early favorite for the 2024 presidential election, has announced that the city government will sponsor English-language broadcasts of games involving the Taoyuan team, the Rakuten Monkeys, which currently tops the league.

China’s Kuomintang government seized Taiwan after Japan’s surrender in 1945, and relocated there after being overthrown by Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in 1949. Under the name “Chinese Taipei,” Taiwan dominated the Little League World Series, an annual tournament for players aged 10 to 12, winning 17 of the 28 finals between 1969 and 1996, the year of Taiwan’s first direct presidential election. As a child, I watched some of those games on television in the U.S. and remember asking my parents where Chinese Taipei was. They had no idea.

In 1971, with China and the U.S. locked in Cold War rivalry, a chance exchange between table tennis players from both countries during a tournament in Japan led to the thawing of Sino-American relations and Washington’s recognition of Beijing as the legitimate government of China in 1979.

The People’s Republic of China may have a bigger economy and military, but it cannot compete with Taiwan in baseball -- the sport has never taken hold in the world’s most populous country. But the fans at the game I attended were not interested in geopolitics. They just wanted the Guardians to win, which eventually happened, largely thanks to a two-run double at the bottom of the sixth inning by Malo Ipong, a member of the indigenous Amis group. After the game, the Lions bowed, Japanese-style, to the audience and then their victorious opponents.

Unseen by those who filed out of the stadium were the countless new online fans the league has picked up since the opening day of the season on April 12. For them, Taiwan, at that moment, became the center of the sports universe. The moment has passed, but it is a memory that no Beijing propagandist can erase.

Chris Horton is a Taipei-based journalist

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