Diamonds Aren't Forever

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Baseball as played on the island of Taiwan has its peculiarities. The concession stands sell instant noodles instead of hot dogs with mustard. Intense fan support means the season drags on for more than nine months. But as anywhere else in the world, what aficionados really want are great contests on the diamond. Local sportswriters often portray the action as clashes between the tiger and the dragon, a traditional Chinese metaphor for intense conflict.
But fans will no longer be able to see the real Tigers and Dragons go head to head. In the past two months both the Mercury Tigers and the Weichuan Dragons announced that they are hanging up their spikes permanently. Fans of the Tigers are disappointed; supporters of the Dragons, which won the league championship for the past three years, are downright distraught. I've been going to their games since they started, mourns Agnes Hsiao, a college student. They mean a lot to me. The Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), the country's largest, is now down to four teams from seven three years ago, and it's likely to shrink further. The most intense struggle anyone is likely to witness this year will be Taiwan baseball trying merely to survive.Behind both the swift rise of the sport in Taiwan and its impending collapse is an even bigger local passion: gambling. In the old days, punters put money mainly on dice and mahjong. After professional baseball was launched locally in 1990, bookies embraced the sport, taking bets from basement offices or over the telephone and, these days, via the Internet. Betting fueled Taiwan's baseball passion, particularly among the laboring classes. It filled stadiums and, ultimately, led to television stations paying large amounts to team owners for rights to broadcast the games.

But gambling inevitably attracts organized crime, and the Taiwan underworld's involvement may be killing off the sport. Not content with taking a percentage, the heavies started fixing games by bribing players and coaches with something less than finesse. On Aug. 2, 1996, four players from the then-reigning Brother Elephants team were abducted and held in a hotel room in the city of Taichung. Second baseman Wu Fu-lien was reportedly pistol-whipped, and the popular pitcher Chen The Knife Thrower Yi-hsin had a pistol barrel shoved in his mouth. According to prosecutors, the kidnappers were from a syndicate that had lost $125,000 on an Elephants game. They believed the players had intentionally thrown it after being paid off by a rival gang.

The Elephants, understandably, went into a slump -- followed soon by the entire industry as investigators disclosed widespread corruption and pressure tactics in just about every locker room. Even the 1997 high school baseball championship suffered when five players from the Pingtung High School team had to be taken home by their parents in the middle of the game: the youngsters had received threats from a group of strangers, apparently gangsters worried about their bets. Eventually, 21 players, a coach and 12 alleged mob men were convicted in September 1997 of misdeeds. But the public wasn't adequately assured that the cleanup was for real, especially when Dragons manager Hsu Sheng-ming was stabbed four times last April after dropping his daughter at school. (Hsu declined to press charges after police arrested two suspects.) Bettors became increasingly convinced that an honest wager didn't have a chance. The fans began to lose confidence in the game, says Wayne Lee, acting secretary-general of the CPBL. They thought that maybe what they were watching was fake. The stadiums emptied out, and TV contracts shrank. Bookies are now busy taking bets on United States Major League games beamed in by satellite TV. Dragons owner Weichuan Enterprises, a food products company, decided to pull the plug in December despite the team's recent success. The gambling, the rumors, the incidents, says Chao Hung-wen, Weichuan's administrative manager, have all become too much to take.

The country has another baseball circuit, the Taiwan Major League, but its four teams have perhaps too clean an image: they are all owned by the same company, a subsidiary of TVIS, the network that broadcasts their games. That translates into a lack of zip, especially for the wager-oriented. The key, says the CPBL's Lee, is attracting fans by offering truly exciting games. The central and municipal governments are concerned because they have constructed numerous stadiums, some of them suitable only for baseball. But the sport may not have a future in Taiwan if someone doesn't get the baseball bats back on the field -- and out of the grip of hoodlums.

Reported by Michael Kitchen/Taipei