They were once the most dominant team in their sport. They won nine championships in an 11-year span. Their 17 overall titles more than double the total of the next-best team. They were so dominant that on the rare occasion when they lose, it’s considered an upset for the ages.
So are we talking about the New York Yankees? Montreal Canadiens? Yomiuri Giants? No. This is about Taiwan’s Little League baseball teams.
The 67th Little League World Series begins Thursday in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Taiwan will once again have a representative in the 16-team tournament. But the Taiwanese are not the prohibitive favorites they once were. In fact, the 12-year-olds from Taoyuan might be a longshot to end Taiwan’s 16-year championship drought.
Just what happened to Taiwan’s Little League teams? Those boys of summer once won 31 straight games at Williamsport – including the 1973 champions from Tainan that won its three games with a cumulative score of 57-0 while not allowing a single hit in the entire tournament. But since winning the 1996 tournament, a team from Taiwan has reached only one final, losing to Chula Vista, California, 6-3, in 2009.
Forget the often-cited and baseless accusation that Taiwan once used overage players to achieve its feat. That was never the case. Full disclosure: This author played Little League ball in Taiwan in the golden age of the1970s. The competition was so fierce that player eligibility was checked scrupulously in tournaments throughout the island. Little League Inc., did its own investigation in the 70s and found not one shred of irregularities.
Taiwan’s one-time dominance can be best explained this way: Winning meant much more than just fun and games.
Taiwan’s Little League success not coincidentally came at a time when the island was faced with a mounting diplomatic crisis. As Taiwan won its first Little League title in 1969, it was in the process of being kicked out of the UN, which preceded Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to China to normalize relations with the Communist mainland. When the U.S. officially severed ties with Taipei to recognize Beijing in 1979, Taiwan’s international isolation was complete.
In this crucible Taiwan’s youth baseball dominance stood as a beacon in the island’s uncertain future. Not just at the Little League level, Taiwanese teams also hoarded Senior and Big League titles – with 17 championships apiece, the last also came in 1996. These teams’ tournament games in America were broadcast live on state television in the island’s wee hours. In the darkness you could hear wild cheering throughout the neighborhood with the blasting of firecrackers greeting each victory.
Taiwan was never known for athletic prowess: other than the decathlon silver medal won by C.K. Yang in the 1960 Rome Games. Its Olympic profile is about as impressive as India’s, with a few medals here and there in minor sports. But the success of the youth teams cemented baseball as the island’s undisputed favorite pastime. Many of the Little Leaguers would go on to play professionally in Japan and Korea and later Taiwan’s own pro baseball league, the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), founded in 1989. In the past decade or so, Taiwanese sluggers have started showing up in the U.S. Major Leagues.
The island’s passion for adult baseball, however, never matched its fervor for the kids in the 1970s and 80s, and it’s easy to see why. The young boys were playing for much more than a sponsor and a paycheck; national pride was at stake. At the Little League World Series, they weren’t playing for Taipei or Kaohsiung or 7-Eleven or Brother Hotel. They were playing for Taiwan.
With the advent of the “Chinese Taipei” moniker and the ban on the use of Taiwan’s national flag at most international sporting events, Williamsport is one of the last places on earth where an ROC flag may be proudly unfurled and waved.
In the past, hundreds of Taiwanese expats and international students would regularly pack Lamade Stadium whenever their team was playing. For every ballplaying little boy in Taiwan, Williamsport was Shangri-La. But times have changed.
While Taiwan is still diplomatically isolated, its residents no longer feel a sense of impending doom, thanks to the rapid rapprochement with the mainland in recent years. The island’s economy, booming since the late 1970s, has raised living standards to the point where Taiwan’s per capita income (purchasing power parity) now exceeds that of the UK and France.
With most of the island’s population enjoying a comfortable life, the hunger for baseball glory waned. A dispute with Little League Inc., over the size of districts didn’t help matters, as Taiwan withdrew from competition from 1997 to 2002.
During its absence, Taiwan’s old rival Japan was once again ascendant. Japanese teams have appeared in 10 of the last 15 finals, winning five titles. Since their return in 2003, Taiwanese teams’ inability to defeat Japan in Williamsport (as both teams are always in the same bracket) has been the chief reason for the prolonged championship drought.
This year’s team from Taoyuan easily won the Asia-Pacific regional, going 7-0, though its recent predecessors have all done that, with little success once reaching Williamsport. Maybe this group of kids will finally end the 16-year drought. Maybe they won’t. But win or lose, it’s now just a game. And that’s the way it should be.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.