An exhibition tour of Taiwan by Major League Baseball has shown the island what its favourite sport could be like -- if only it could shake off organised crime, violence and corruption.
Despite Taiwan’s ardent love for the game, its China Professional Baseball League (CPBL) has been struggling, in large measure because of the influence of the underworld and its intimidation, gambling and game-fixing.
According to experts, the MLB all-star series, which the visitors wrapped up 5-0 on Sunday having drawn tens of thousands of fans, highlighted the huge gap between American baseball and the management of the sport in Taiwan.
“I don’t understand the point of this MLB tour,” said Andrew Morris, a Taiwan expert at California Polytechnic State University, who has written a book about Taiwanese baseball.
“It’s not going to make the locals more interested in the domestic product. It will just show the divide between the two games and remind fans how seedy and violent Taiwan baseball is.”
Since pro-ball began in Taiwan in 1990, there have been five game-fixing scandals, four of them in the last seven years.
With each one seemingly more lurid than the last, attendances have plummeted from an average 7,000 fans a game in the late 1990s to a few thousand today.
Accounts of the scandals read like the plot of a Hollywood gangster movie. For players who were resistant to being bought off with money, cars, drugs or prostitutes, things got very ugly, very fast.
Mobsters kidnapped, beat, pistol-whipped and stabbed players and managers.
Guns were inserted in players’ mouths, bullets sent to their homes as warnings, and rumours abound about players being thrown off balconies and going missing after speaking with investigators.
In 1997, the entire China Eagles team was found to be on the take, and in 2008, a notorious mob boss, known as “The Windshield Wiper”, bought a franchise with the sole intention of throwing games for profit.
But the local passion for the game has not been lost, Morris said. “It was the only thing that Taiwan did better than China.
But when Taiwan lost to them in the 2008 Olympics, it hurt a lot,” he said.
The American roots of baseball -- introduced to the island by the Japanese in 1906 when they ran Taiwan as a colony -- can serve to highlight the island’s differences from its giant neighbour and rival, China.
“The game is still important for the Taiwanese sense of self-identity,” he added, saying the island “needs something to shake its political and economic malaise”.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou agrees. After the latest scandal in 2009, when 40 players were indicted and a prominent politician from the southern city of Tainan was found to be running his own gambling syndicate, Ma ordered a four-year plan to prop up the league and rebuild the sport from the ground up.
The programme funds grassroots and junior development through high schools
and bolsters security, oversight and due diligence in the CPBL.
While it is early days, there are signs that the scheme is gaining
traction. Attendance in the four-team league -- down from 11 teams in two
leagues in the mid-1990s -- grew by 20 percent this year.
“We understand that they have gone through some challenges and they are
trying to wrap their arms around the problems. But baseball still has strong
support in Taiwan,” says Paul Archey, vice-president of MLB International.
“Hopefully, us coming over here will provide a shot in the arm to the game
and get people back to the stadiums.”
But it is the game’s very popularity that has some concerned that as soon
as the fans return, the gangsters will follow.
“The Taiwanese love baseball so much because of our political situation and
our success in international tournaments like the Little League World
Championships,” says Richard Wang, CPBL International Affairs Director.
“But if there was another scandal, it would be unthinkable. Not just for
pro-ball but for baseball in Taiwan -- full stop.”