Coronavirus puts global spotlight on Taiwanese baseball
With the coronavirus pandemic interrupting professional baseball in Japan, the United States and elsewhere around the world, some diehard fans of the sport are getting their fix from an unlikely source.
Thanks to successful local efforts to combat the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus, Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League was able to make a late start to its season in April and has since attracted an unusual amount of attention from abroad.
Initially playing to empty stadiums, the four-team league has been allowing a limited number of fans to attend games since May 8.
Among the clubs aiming to claim this year's Taiwan Series title are the Japanese-owned Rakuten Monkeys. Formerly the Lamigo Monkeys, the reigning champions started the current campaign with the new moniker after the e-commerce giant completed its acquisition of the club during the offseason.
Online network Eleven Sports, which also distributes Nippon Professional Baseball games overseas, has begun internet broadcasts of the Monkeys' home games.
Despite being shown with English commentary, the games have attracted decent traffic from Japan. A free screening of the Monkeys' 9-8 victory over the Uni-President Lions on April 15 drew around 20,000 viewers from Japan.
Eleven Sports said it has received as many as 1 million viewers from around the world on a single day.
"The reception has been great," said Kenji Takahashi, a Japanese spokesman for the broadcaster.
Ryokan Kobayashi, a Japanese pitcher formerly with the Taichung-based CTBC Brothers Elephants, said the CPBL was a dynamic league unrivaled for on-field drama.
"There are a lot of agile players who can adapt to different situations. You see dramatic comebacks which you'd never imagine in Japan, which makes it really interesting," the former Chiba Lotte Marines right-hander said.
Kobayashi said his playing days in Taiwan featured hours-long bus trips and practice sessions on riverside lots without dedicated facilities.
The 41-year-old, who now directs a baseball academy in Fukuoka, shares these battle stories with his students who are currently unable to take the field due to the coronavirus.
"This situation is a good learning opportunity. I want them to gain survival skills as baseball players," Kobayashi said.
In addition to the action on the diamond, the Monkeys' cheer squad, the Rakuten Girls, have proven a hit online.
While the games were still taking place in empty stadiums, the cheer squad became a focal point for broadcasts in the absence of fans.
On a typical game day, home team fans take the first and third base side, and chant to electronic music and performances by the cheerleaders.
One member of the Rakuten Girls, Sayaka Imai, also works as a beer seller at the Marines' Zozo Marine Stadium in Chiba.
The 30-year-old has been involved with the Taiwanese cheer squad since 2018, when Rakuten first took a stake in the Monkeys, and has worked several games a month.
With travel restrictions preventing her from attending so far this season, she has been keeping tabs on the squad via the online broadcasts.
"If you're enjoying Taiwanese baseball, whether for the players or the cheerleaders, I hope you'll go see it live once the situation gets back to normal," she said.