It had been a month or so since I heard a droning baseball player interview on my car radio. It’s a media ritual that hauls out certain pre- or post-game tropes with aplomb and a reliable repetition almost soothing to the ear. By accident on Saturday, I hit the MLB Radio tab on the satellite radio in my Volkswagen. There was the drone. It was former Detroit Tigers pitcher Ryan Carpenter being questioned by the host. Carpenter was in Taiwan, where the Chinese Professional Baseball League had been playing its opening week of games inside empty stadiums. I was driving to a somewhat distant wine store just for the heck of it, having spent 60 hours a week behind the wheel of a taxi for most of the past decade, and since the taxis have been parked for a month now, I needed to feel some mileage. And there on that radio was the ballplayer drone. And as I gleaned the fact that Carpenter is now a pitcher for the Rakuten Monkeys of the CPBL, I was also pleased to learn that the league’s games were being streamed live, online. Suddenly the drone became a call to prayer.
To my delight I suddenly had plans of watching a live baseball game on the big monitor of my HP Pavilion PC, receiving the stream via a Tweet pinned by a multimedia provider called Eleven Sports Taiwan. First pitch from Tainan City Municipal Stadium set for 5:05 p.m. Sunday. Ah yes, with the 12-hour time difference between EST USA and Taiwan, that meant getting up at five a.m. for the Sunday game. Shades of the March 30, 2004 MLB Opener played in Tokyo, when Lou Piniella and Don Zimmer earned 13,520 frequent flier miles taking their Tampa Bay Devil Rays squad to the Tokyo Dome to play Joe Torre’s New York Yankees. Back in the five boroughs, bleary-eyed fans had to turn on their TVs and radios well before the NYC garbage trucks made their dainty six a.m. collections.
Sunday morning began with a strange sound: my cell phone alarm. Set for 4:55 a.m. Still suspicious of a last-minute paywall or other online trappings, I faced my computer which was the sole light in the darkened street. Behind it on the wall, there were grinning Sports Illustrated covers featuring Andrew McCutchen, a Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros flyer from Brooklyn, Willie Stargell and Al Oliver and Danny Murtaugh covers from The Sporting News. A dangle of old press credential laminates: The ESPY Awards. A Klitschko fight at the Garden. A stray shot of Travis Bickle on 42nd St. There is a constant search on that wall for a gonfalon bubble for both my team and my career. But here five weeks into a stay at home order you look out the window and absorb yet another Edward Hopperesque stillness to the corner where the electrician resides.
Was live baseball actually about to happen somewhere?
Yes. With a click, Ryan the Lion, the mascot of the Tainan UniLions, appeared and was doing cartwheels for the camera. The UniLions were taking on the visiting Rakuten Monkeys, Carpenter’s team, in the rubber match of a three-game weekend tilt. The Monkeys are atop the four-team league and entered Sunday 7-1. They are, according to one cheeky CPBL website, “all hit and no pitch.” Take that, Carpenter (2-8 lifetime record with Detroit). He did note during his interview on the radio that the league is very hitter-friendly, with aggressive at-bats as the norm. As the English-language broadcaster would point out, in 2016 the league had three .400 hitters.
The website preview of the 2020 season also equivocated CPBL play to that of AA minor league ball in the states. The announcers seemed to hint that getting bought by a Japanese club was the local form of promotion. The Rakuten Monkeys, or some version of them (team names change in the corporate world) have won five of the last six CPBL championships, including 2019.
Rakuten got recent publicity stateside for its decision to place socially-distanced mannequins and cardboard cutouts of fans in its home ballpark up north in Taoyuan City. CPBL games were already known for over-the-top cheerleading, DJs, song and dance acts and constant buzz of fan interaction when the home team is batting. Since Taiwan, an island of 23 million people (most of them Buddhists), had clamped down in the early stages of the coronavirus spread, it had only 429 confirmed cases and six deaths from COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins pandemic dashboard this past weekend. Carpenter mentioned in his MLB radio interview players were being asked to spit less (perhaps forego sunflower seeds?) and were discouraged from high-fiving teammates.
The announcers were Rob and Keith, with Keith having more hard facts and a slightly better command of English. As the sun prepared to rise over upstate New York stay-at-home grayness, it was setting over Tainan, a city which gave baseball fans ex-Yankee hurler Chien-Ming Wang. Rob reported the temperature as being a comfortable 82 degrees. The Eleven Sports stream listed 170 viewers by 5:03 a.m. The umpires were doing their pregame gestures and it hits you that umpires everywhere and anywhere all have the same postures. Whether it’s Roanoke or Calgary or Oaxaca or Taiwan, all umps speak a universal shared body language. The home plate guy looks to be a veteran. He’s got that Clint Eastwood squint like a slimmed down Joe West.
The stadium built in the early 1990s without “quirks” holds a well-groomed grass field with Nike and Mizuno logos painted in foul territory. 339 down the lines, all business everywhere else in the power alleys and dead center. No upper deck. An honest ballpark. It also has the dirt path from home plate to the pitcher’s mound—a novelty Buck Showalter was always fond of in Phoenix when that awful franchise came to pass.
Announcer Keith mentioned the UniLions starting pitcher Shih might be going through a sophomore slump. He took the hill wearing an Oil Can Boyd-style gold necklace. At 5:07 am EST, he threw a strike down the middle. I smiled in my underwear. The glove pop was LOUD. Ramen-style advertisements of every color known to man were traveling along a horizontal ribbon ticker on the backstop, which would probably distract the ninnies who take the MLB hills over here.
With the darkness fading and the birdsong outside apparently plugged into a Marshall stack, I eased into the simple pleasures of the game. A beautiful foul out to the UniLions catcher who made a Mark Morris Dance Company play up the third base line for the out. So what if the Rakuten hitters are wearing jersey numbers such as 88 and everyone swings like Ichiro and Matsui? There’s an Asian style and grace to the CPBL game, just as suspected. They’re trying in vain to keep up with the Japanese and Korean Joneses, so there’s some flash to their games.
The Eleven Sports camera work was excellent through the first inning. I dreaded for a minute it might be like the Bard College video feed of their D-3 baseball games, which is a single camera with an open mic behind home plate up in the press box. An open mic, with no play-by-play or color commentary of the action from Honey Field in Annandale, NY. Who wouldn’t jump on that opportunity? The Bard College athletic director is a neighbor and she walks her dog past my house and many times I’ve been tempted to pounce and ask if I could grab that open mic and spice up their single-camera broadcast. I was building up courage to approach her for their upcoming spring slate, and then all this happened. I looked out the window at 5:29 a.m., there was no sign of the Bard athletic director.
I’ve noticed CPBL games have no pitch speed indicator, mound visit tally and the players wear adjustable caps. There are no launch angle analytics or exit velocity bells and whistles. There are very few, if any, defensive shifts employed based on some “remember Oakland” Excel sheet in the front office. CPBL is a pleasant time warp for a baseball fan born in 1964. I thank the Lord again and think about making some of that new Folger’s “Noir” goth packaging of their coffee. But my dog Margo stares me down, having been rousted so early during these uncertain times of oversleeping. Coffee will have to wait.
Announcers Keith and Rob back in Tainan were overselling routine plays, which is fine, because deprived baseball addicts can use routine plays for what they are. Keith bashed a bunt-prone .145 hitter who “has a small frame.” But the 19-year-old is roping line drives foul down the left field line and actually hit the ump in the leg. Two things hit me: 1. THIS IS NOT A VIDEO GAME, and B. The CPBL is not a “patient batter let us take pitches and accumulate walks and elevate pitch-counts” SABRE type of on-base percentage wet dream deal. It’s the exact opposite. These guys gash, and the pitchers be damned.
Lo and behold by 5:25 a.m. there were 789 viewers of the Eleven Sports feed. Y.H. Chu of Rakuten is at the plate and Announcer Rob says he’s “The hottest hitter on the planet” quite accurately. (Rob would use that line several times.) Dude has eight home runs in nine games, and all eight of them are against the UniLions. Oil Can then strikes him out looking with a possibly too-low sinker. Over a shot of a tarp in center, Rob mentions the pandemic for the first time. Apparently, the message on the tarp sign is thanking the first responders and frontline workers of Taiwan. The next shot is of the four grinning UniLions Girl cheerleaders giving a thumbs-up and then leading a cheer to an empty section of seats. The next shot from the center field camera showed several mysterious distanced figures wearing masks in the enclosed seats behind home plate. Must be operations people, or perhaps scouts from the Pittsburgh Pirates?
I notice on the close-ups of the player’s faces, they all look like they’re getting away with something. Which I guess they are. Oddly enough, after all the offensive hype, Oil Can has a perfect game going as the home team is up 6-0. The contrast of the home and visiting team at-bats is an elegant balance of cacophonous pop music loops and cheers with athletic facility calm when you can hear a security guard sneeze (oh no!) along with Mamet-style dugout banter directed at the diamond. By 6:05 a.m. it’s light outside and this guy still has his perfecto going. I believe I jinxed it a t 6:01 a.m. as the first redneck flatbed truck rolled down my street without a muffler. There are 789 viewers still as a brilliant 3-1 put-out maintains the perfecto. “What would John Sterling have said after that play?” I asked Margo, giving me another death-stare. (Margo is a Staffordshire terrier “rescue from the south” so she is probably a Braves fan and Wolves supporter. Yikes.)
By 6:20 a.m. the Rakuten battery has passive-aggressively goaded the home plate ump and they’re getting no calls. I notice up the right field line there’s a trashed Tiki Bar pavilion with a few stray medicine balls stored in a wagon and an ailanthus tree seems to have made it all the way from Brooklyn to peer over an errant piece of rigged fencing. A foul ball goes out of the stadium to left and the camera catches the glowing McDonald’s arches out in the streetscape of nighttime Tainan. There’s a Pizza Hut ad on the right field stands, so 1980s American fast food is well represented. And we won’t mention 7-Eleven, which seems to be a cultural superpower over there.
Announcer Keith isn’t sold on Shih’s breaking stuff that’s drifting dangerously high by 6:27 a.m. Camera shutters can be heard loudly after each pitch. There’s a Dave Winfield-style bat throw toward the stands that earns five replays. Announcer Keith continues to guess pitches to be thrown by Shih, with a Monkeys batter named Lan fouling off a shit-ton of pitches. Finally, at 6:35 a.m., Shih’s perfecto and no-hitter is gone with a double to the gap by a Monkey. As was the case very often last Sunday morning, the outfielders bobbled the ball, which allowed the Rakuten batter to advance to second base.
Former MLBer Jaimie Navarro is the pitching coach for Tainan. He’s a Puerto Rican who won 116 games over 12 seasons in MLB, mostly with the Brewers. He doesn’t look happy as he towers over his translator named “Tiger” as together they make a mound visit to settle his starter who still has a 6-0 advantage. Announcer Keith said that is “not a safe lead” in this league.
I refresh the original Twitter feed and by 8:43 a.m. the number had ballooned to 1.8K viewers. The later innings featured some sweet double plays. There was a submariner reliever. More outfield bobbles. By 9:01 a.m. the game was over on a fly-out to right. A gorgeous fly-out to right. UniLions win 12-5, take the series, hope to gain more ground on Monkeys. I was a changed man the rest of the day. Didn’t know quite why, but I felt different. My long drive to the faraway wine store dropped a baseball fortune cookie into my lap. In my dreams I break it open and the little slip of paper reads: “Let’s Play Two!”