When the coronavirus began raising concerns in China this past January, Taiwan’s professional baseball league set up a task force to help determine whether the outbreak would spread into nearby Taiwan and scuttle a scheduled 2020 season start in March.
After China sealed off its disease outbreak center Wuhan and hundreds of Taiwanese began fleeing back from Lunar New Year holidays in China around the start of February, the Taipei-based Chinese Professional Baseball League brought on a legal expert too.
“We figured conditions were extremely serious,” commissioner Wu Chih-yang said in an interview.
A veteran sports watcher anywhere in the world would assume at this point that the league delayed play until May, June or whenever. Pro baseball and basketball have put off play in the United States. Baseball has been halted for now in Japan and South Korea. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will take place in 2021.
But the Taiwan baseball league opened play just three weeks late, on April 11. Its five teams intend to finish all 240 normal season games before December even though at the present time the teams are playing the games without their usual crowds of thousands.
Here’s how the league beat the odds.
As the disease spread in China in February and March, Taiwan’s league was trying to plan its normal season as well as two other series including one in preparation for the 2020 summer Olympics, which hadn’t yet been postponed.
At the same time, the Taiwan government’s Central Epidemic Command Center was laying out ideas on how to manage large events such as ball games, but they were just suggestions, Wu recalled.
In view of the advice, the government’s suggestions and confusion after two brief season delays in March and Taiwan’s light coronavirus caseload, the league decided to start play with empty stadiums but enough atmosphere that viewers at home could imagine the real thing.
Taiwan’s outbreak of the coronavirus-caused respiratory disease COVID-19 has reached 429 cases over a total 23 million population, one of the developed world’s lowest infection rates. It's low enough to protect gatherings of athletes and other personnel, the league found. But crowds of spectators, who had averaged 6,000 per game in previous seasons, could spread the virus, Wu said.
Cheerleaders can get into the venues now because they’re known to the teams rather than strangers. They do enough dancing that TV and internet viewers can exercise in sync with their moves while watching from home, Wu said. Cheerleading, rah-rah music tracks blasted through the stadium speakers and empty seats in some stadiums decked with spectator-like mannequins add a sense authenticity despite lack of fans. One team has brought in six robots as drummers.
“I think we’d all like more fans to come in and cheer us on, but there’s truly no way for that, due to the outbreak,” said Wang Wei-chen, an infielder with the Chinatrust Brothers team. “We’re lucky we can play games and let people see them.”
Online viewing that hit 650,000 people during one game April 15 attracts brands to display ads in stadiums and promotes the sale of team-specific uniforms worn by cheerleaders, the commissioner said. “If they were losing money, no one would do this,” he said of the teams.
Wu believes Taiwan's professional baseball league is the only major one that's playing in the world now.
“We won’t of course call it glory,” Wu said. “We want players all over the world to stay healthy and then get through the disease outbreaks and be able to start their seasons smoothly, because actually to be the only one is quite lonely.”
At the request of some teams, the league decided last week to add English-language play-by-play narration and commentary at each stadium, Wu said. That perk allows people in the United States and other countries without baseball to follow Taiwan’s games.
“Taiwan baseball has gone down very well in America,” said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy. “The relatively small number of Taiwanese teams enables viewers to get know the entire league after only a few games. The fact that Taiwan baseball's even on shows the world what a great job Taiwan's done against COVID-19.”
That Taiwan’s league can play this month isn't a diplomatic tool for the island that's always keen to expand international recognition in the face of its more powerful rival China, however. It reflects “our success in public health policy advanced planning and implementation,” foreign ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou said.
“It is just sport, never meant to be a tool of diplomacy," Ou said. "It just happened to be the only one in the world to carry it out."