Monday, April 13, 2009

The baseball problem in Taiwan

I have written a couple of other posts about the problems with baseball in Taiwan. Chronic gambling, allegations of game-fixing, and a loss of teams, with just 4 left in the Taiwanese majors.

The government in Taiwan is throwing money at the problem to try and fix it, as baseball is a near religion on the island:
In the wake of the crushing defeat of Taiwan's national baseball team at the hands of the Chinese national team in last month's World Baseball Classic, the Kuomintang government of President Ma Ying-jeou has proposed spending NT$260 million over the next four years in a drive for an "instant" revitalization of baseball that may well speed its demise.
This, to me, is completely different than cities in the U.S. paying to build new stadiums for major league teams, which is something I am against whole-heartedly.

However, what we're talking about in Taiwan is the survival of the game itself, and Taiwan's place in world baseball. While I thought it was a good idea, not everyone agrees. Imagine that. From the Taiwan News comes a dissenting opinion:

Indeed, the government's plan may well lead to an exacerbation of the current preoccupation with baseball players instead of dealing with the far more critical problem of the lack of social support in our society for professional and amateur athletics. Such a fate would not be unprecedented.

For example, after the 2002 World Cup, the then Democratic Progressive Party government threw money into cultivating or recruiting talented soccer players so that Taiwan could have a chance to enter the next World Cup tournament in 2007.

Moreover, after the conclusion of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, ex-president Chen Shui-bian and the then DPP government tossed even more taxpayer funds to achieve a touted goal of snaring at least seven gold medals in the August 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, in which the "Chinese Taipei" ultimately failed to win even one gold medallion.

These "fast food" campaigns not only failed to achieve their objectives but instead became obstacles for the development of athletics in our country. After all, cultivating athletes without paying attention to building support in society for athletics has only succeeded in authoritarian or socialist societies. After our democratic transition, Taiwan can no longer sustain any professional sports for which cannot attract paying spectators.
The staff writer (odd that its a nameless staff writer and not a beat writer, unless that's the standard) feels the issue is one of basics:

It should be noted that the best teams in Asian classic or major competitions are from Japan and South Korea, both of which have numerous baseball teams and competitions beginning in elementary and middle schools through university level leagues whose games are supported by spectators from nearby communities as well as the schools themselves.

Since only such a sustainable web of social support can provide fertile soil for the cultivation of elite talented players, if Taiwan is unable to revitalize community interest in society for baseball at all levels of competition, there will be no way to truly revitalize the sport and enhance the quality of our national team no matter how much taxpayer money the Ma government spends.
He's completely right about that aspect of it. If you don't get communities involved (Oakland, Pittsburgh, Washington) or play the game at a level where people will grow up with it, then it will never take off. Soccer is a growing sport because the people pushing it were smart enough to get youth leagues and school programs started. Now there is a viable, if still lesser-quality, major league in the states. Someone needs an ass-kicking for that. Pete Rozelle and Bowie Kuhn let that happen.

I'll be the first one to admit that I don't know enough about baseball in Taiwan, and throwing money at the problem might not be the best way to go. But it does seem like some thought has gone into it:

The three-point plan drafted by the Sports Affairs Council and approved by the Cabinet April 2 Cabinet April 2 aimed to "establish a second-level league, promote local-level baseball teams and curb gambling."

Besides painting another "pie in the sky" by setting a target of getting into the semifinals of the next World Baseball Classic, the plan also aims to place priority on the stabilization of the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which has now shrunk to only four teams, launch the organization and training of a minor league teams, set up a national team training system and provide subsidies to improve performance.

Under the proposal, each of the four remaining CPBL teams will receive NT$10 million subsidies annually to set up minor league teams that will play at least 60 games in a season, while the government will assist local governments and major enterprises set up an amateur baseball league by organizing 10 new teams in addition to the current two groups sponsored by the Taiwan Power Co and Taiwan Cooperative Bank.
The major problem with that, as the writer sees it:

However, the success or failure of such a scheme will ultimately depend on the quality of the teams and their capability to attract fans, but a rushed effort to form 10 new amateur teams subsided by taxpayer funds could easily turn into a melee of cutthroat competition for players from the existing ranks of professional or former professional players and leave the question of sustainable training from the grassroots in the dust.

Third, the Cabinet plan for each city and county administrations to establish their own amateur baseball team or even to set up professional teams with government financing would effectively turn professional athletes into quasi-civil service employees and shift the burdens of covering deficits for unprofitable teams from the owners to the shoulders of taxpayers. Moreover, the reality of huge inequality in resources between special municipalities and ordinary counties and between northern and southern Taiwan will inevitably lead to the concentration of the better players in teams footed by affluent Taipei City, Taipei County, Taichung City and Taoyuan County.

The inevitable domination by these four northern districts will erode the national viability and fan appeal of the proposed amateur league.
Still, the biggest problem facing the baseball in Taiwan:

Last but not least, the Cabinet's plan is light on concrete methods to curb chronic gambling and may indeed exacerbate this plague and instead may spread the curse of gambling with an excessively rapid expansion of teams and more opportunities for game fixing.
Gambling and game-fixing will kill baseball faster than anything. If that problem isn't fixed first, what difference does the rest of it make.

For more on baseball in Taiwan, go to Taiwan Baseball. Ben, who writes the blog, was kind enough to answer some questions for me, and give a first-hand opinion on what is happening. This is his take on it:

The bottom line is that it is difficult to find premium talent on the island right now. Top guys like HC Kuo, CH Tsao, CF Chen, and CM Wang were signed nearly a decade ago. What's contributing to this? Essentially we've seen a decrease in the participation by children/youths in the sport of baseball. Let's take a look at a few alarming trends. Ten to fifteen years ago, demographically, the number of kids playing baseball was 70% Taiwanese (Han ethnicity) and 30% of aboriginal descent. Nowadays, it's the reverse: 70% aboriginees and 30% Taiwanese (Han ethnicity). Aboriginees make up only less than 5% of the entire population in Taiwan!

Also, in 1992 there were 850 elementary schools with little league teams. Nowadays there are only 400. From these two figures alone, it's obvious that the talent pool for Taiwanese baseball players has shrunk considerably.

Baseball also competes against other sports (particularly basketball) for thletes - and unlike the US, kids just don't play two sports in HS.

The biggest problem in Taiwan is that the education system is screwed up and the quality of coaching is subpar.

So where do I think the money that the government is spending should go? It's pretty obvious that more money should have gone towards cultivating and developing the sport at a much younger age.

The only person that came out publicly to criticize the government about spending some serious coin on industrial league teams rather than youth baseball was President Lions GM Jason Lin. However this got little attention by the media.

Article of President Lions GM Jason Lin blasting the government for spending so much money only to help "older players." (Babelfish required)
by the Chinatimes on the number of little league teams,4752,11051203+112009031600308,00.html

Thanks, Ben.

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