Professional baseball league seeks rebirth in 2013


TAIPEI, Taiwan — Its image severely tarnished by a series of game-fixing scandals over the past 15 years, Taiwan’s professional baseball league is hoping for a rebirth this year with an infusion of players who have performed professionally overseas.

Hu Chin-lung, Kao Kuo-hui and Chen Hung-wen, who played at the minor league level in the United States, are among 10 Taiwanese players with experience abroad who will join Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) this season.

Infielder Hu, 29, who has spent most of the past 10 years bouncing between the major leagues and Triple-A, was drafted first overall in the CPBL draft by the E-Da Rhinos.

The 27-year-old Kao, who played in the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system for six years, also joined the Rhinos, the new name for the team that finished last in the CPBL last year, the Sinon Bulls.

Pitcher Chen Hung-wen, 27, who played in the minor leagues from 2007 to 2011 and reached Triple-A in 2010 and 2011, was picked by the Brother Elephants.

Hu said he hoped to use the experience he gained in the U.S. to bring a new mindset to the league, “using more exciting games to change the baseball vibe in the country.”

Su Tai-an, general manager of the Uni-President Lions, one of the oldest teams in the CPBL, observed at the beginning of spring training last month that “the league is now full of positive energy.”

Bullish about the league’s future, Su quoted English writer Charles Dickens and described the upcoming season as “the best of times and the worst of times.”

The four-team CPBL was on the verge of disbanding in late 2012, when the Sinon Group announced in late October its plan to sell the Bulls because of mounting financial losses.

Had a buyer not been found, the league, left with only three franchises, would have collapsed.

But the E-United Group, which has manufacturing, education, health care and real estate interests, came to the rescue in December when it purchased the club from the Sinon Group.

Group Chairman Lin Yi-shou made it clear, however, that he would disband the team if it is found to have engaged in fixing games.

To put an end to the practice, the Rhinos have hired security guards to accompany its players during training sessions and games, and the Lions work closely with prosecutors to nip pressure from gambling rings to fix games in the bud.

In its heyday in the early 1990s, the CPBL averaged crowds of well over 5,000 fans a game, but attendance plummeted after the first round of game-fixing scandals in the mid-1990s to below 2,000 per game.

Attendance averaged 3,000 in 2011 and 2,433 in 2012, according to the CPBL, but the league hopes it has finally turned the corner this offseason.

Signs of the league’s possible revival were seen in December when more than 200 fans crowded into the venue for the CPBL draft. Then, on Jan. 5, hundreds of diehard fans braved strong winds and a drizzle to watch the opening of the Elephants’ spring training in Taoyuan.

The CPBL is hoping that the infusion of players with name recognition can help the league regain its momentum, but the league’s management recognizes that the fans will have little tolerance for another scandal.

Hung Rei-ho, owner of the Elephants, told his players to be very careful in making friends and to never “hurt the fans’ hearts again.”

“It’s not that we don’t have fans. We just screwed it up,” he said.