Ever wonder why the world doesn’t really play in the World Series? Since 1903, when the Pittsburgh Pirates challenged the Boston Americans to a “world championship game,” we have taken it for granted that the best baseball team in America is the best baseball team on the planet.
And why shouldn’t we? Baseball, like the other sports Americans love most, is uniquely our own. While everybody else is riveted by soccer — London stockbrokers and camel-herding nomads alike overcome great odds to watch the World Cup — most Americans could care less. It’s baseball season.
But there’s one place that loves baseball as much as we do: Taiwan, an island of 23 million people off the coast of China. Baseball is the sole professional sport here. It’s featured on the $500 bill, instead of a president’s head.
The moment you arrive here, you notice how the Taiwanese take what’s best in American culture and tweak it to make it their own. In Taipei, McDonald’s has a library-like atmosphere, where students can study 24 hours a day. At 7-11, the guy behind the counter does your laundry, sends your faxes, and takes your parking ticket payment. Talk about a convenience store.
Baseball, too, takes on a local flavor. Teams travel together to Buddhist temples to pray for victory. They drink tea together in the locker room before games. Fans hang pineapples outside the dugout for good luck.
So how did Taiwan get so serious about this intrinsically American sport?
According to Junwei Yu, author of “Playing In Isolation: A History of Baseball in Taiwan,’’ the sport was brought here in the 1920s by Japanese colonizers who learned it from Americans in the late 1800s.
But it didn’t get popular until 1968, when a Taiwanese elementary school called Red Leaf beat a Japanese team to qualify for the Little League World Series in Pittsburgh.
Beating Japan and traveling to America made the young players national heroes. They were told that their victory would bring honor to their ancestors. They practiced day and night. After they won, half a million people joined the ticker-tape parade in Taipei.
Decades later, Red Leaf was exposed for having 15-year-olds on the team (the tournament is for players between the ages of 11 and 13). But at the time, the victory was a much-needed morale boost for a population besieged with geopolitical woes.
Taiwan’s mortal enemy, communist China, was just beginning to win acceptance around the world. In 1971, Taiwan had to relinquish its seat on the UN Security Council so China could have it. In 1972, President Nixon visited China. Demoralized, Taiwan used the Little League World Series to show that the island could not be kept down. Taiwan’s propaganda units aimed radio broadcasts at China, boasting that its boys had beaten the Americans in baseball.
“All we cared about was our national champions,” Yu said. “It was life and death.”
Taiwan won the Little League World Series nine out of the next 12 years.
When Taiwan became a democracy in the late 1980s, teams could finally play for money rather than national honor. The first pro league was born.
Companies set up teams to advertise themselves. Brother Elephant, Taiwan’s most popular team, is owned by Brother Hotel.
For years, pro baseball flourished. Six thousand fans flocked to games every night. Then catastrophe struck: In 1996, five Brother Elephants were kidnapped by mobsters who demanded they throw the game. It turns out gambling on baseball is the only thing Taiwanese love more than baseball itself. After a rash of similar match-fixing scandals, some fans lost faith.
But that hasn’t stopped Taiwan from using baseball to try to establish friendlier relations with China in a new era of cooperation. Recently, Richard Wang, an employee of Taiwan’s baseball league, traveled to Shanghai to talk about getting more games going.
Wang, who graduated from Wentworth Institute in Boston, lived for years in the shadow of Fenway Park. He has a shrine to the Red Sox that includes a photograph signed by Ted Williams.
But he has dedicated himself to promoting the sport in Asia.
“Give it a few years,” he said. “We’ll be strong.”
Sure, Taiwan’s best players get lured away by the big money of American Major League Baseball. But Wang has a dream that one day the winner of his Asia Championship will play the MLB champion.
“You know — to make it a real World Series,” he said.