Thank Heavens For Taiwan’s CPBL

Reigning league MVP Chu Yu-Hsien

Chu Yu-Hsien is the hottest hitter in the world right now. Hands down. Four games into the season, the 28-year-old outfielder already has five dingers, and after collecting two more hits today, is batting well above .600.

Let me also be the first to admit that until last night I’d never heard of him. Doesn’t matter. He’s my new favorite player, on my new favorite team — the Rakuten Monkeys — and in the best baseball country in the world: Taiwan.

Yes, in these strange times of coronavirus and confinement, where nothing is at it once was (even just a few weeks ago), I’ve joined a growing number of fans around the world and happily hitched a ride on the CPBL bandwagon.

For the uninitiated, CPBL stands for Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), based in Taiwan, the island nation that is suddenly — and quite improbably — the center of the baseball universe, and for a simple reason: supply and demand.

For the northern half of the world, spring has finally sprung, and for fans and players, that means the start of baseball season. Or so we all thought, before the COVID-19 pandemic came along and, from one day the next, shut everything down.

Fans who’d waited patiently all winter for the return of major and minor-league baseball in the U.S. and Canada have to keep waiting — until further notice. The same goes for the various European leagues, including in France, where the 2020 season of the semi-pro D1 was supposed to kick off earlier this month.

That too has been suspended, hopefully not for the entire season, but perhaps. The fact of the matter is, nobody knows. And for the players — with everyone shut up in their respective homes and apartments, not even allowed to practice — this limbo period is especially trying.

There’s a huge, unsatisfied demand for baseball, in other words, all the more since so many of us are stuck indoors desperate for a distraction. Lord knows we could all use something fun, competitive and LIVE to get excited about.

A ray of baseball sunshine

And that’s where the CPBL comes in. Taiwan has done a formidable job of containing the coronavirus outbreak, with fewer than 500 confirmed cases and just six deaths. And because of that, a decision was made to buck the global trend and go ahead and play ball, albeit with one very significant change: Games are being held “behind closed doors,” i.e. in empty stadiums (but with cheerleaders and a few robot fans).

Another novelty for the 2020 season, which began April 11, is that because the CPBL is the only show in town, one of the teams — Chu Yu-Hsien’s Rakuten Monkeys — is offering free, English-language broadcasts of their home games via the Eleven Sports Taiwan network.

Coronavirus precautions are still in place (screen shot)

It’s unclear how long the service will last, but for the time being, the games — and colorful English-language commentary by announcers Richard Wang and Wayne Scott McNeil — are garnering a growing amount of attention. The CPBL, now in its 31st season, even got a write up earlier this week from Time Magazine.

The games are also putting smiles on a lot of people’s faces, and at a time, significantly, when smiles are sorely needed. “Baseball’s back. Fear the Monkey.. Are 4:30 AM Miller Lites acceptable?,” one new CPBL fan posted on Twitter during today’s broadcast of the second in a three-game series between the Rakuten Monkeys and Fubon Guardians.

The quality of play may not match MLB standards, especially when it comes to pitching. But that’s also what makes the CPBL so entertaining. Today’s 12-9 victory for the Monkeys — who should have run away with the game but then made things unnecessarily interesting by giving up seven runs in the last two innings — was a case in point.

“The CPBL is a very hitter-friendly league. It is not uncommon to see teams putting more than 10 runs on the scoreboard,” the website CPBL STATS explains in an excellent preview piece published last week.

With his early season heroics, Chu Yu-Hsien is making that very case — and then some. But last year’s league MVP isn’t the only Taiwanese player capable of lighting it up.

Chang “Spider Man” Chih-Hao of the CTBC Brothers, Su Chih-Chieh of the Uni-Lions and Liu Chi-Hung of the Wei Chuan Dragons are also among the stars worth tuning in for, CPBL STATS notes.

In an ideal world, I’d be arriving in Clermont-Ferrand right about now to watch tomorrow’s originally scheduled doubleheader between the Arvenes and Sénart Templiers, last year’s D1 runners up. But since that can’t happen, I think I’ll check out Eleven Sports Taiwan’s coverage of the next Monkeys/Guardians game instead. If you’re missing baseball as much as I am, maybe you should too.

The Eleven Sports Taiwan network is broadcasting games in English via their Twitter account. Coverage of the Sunday, April 19 game begins at 11.05 a.m. France time.

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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