The universal language
Love of the game connects Dodgers to fans who cheered and cherished the team's trip
Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com traveled with the Dodgers during their three-game exhibition series Taiwan. This is her diary of her trip, the players and the fans in a land where baseball is an obsession.
Taipei to Kaohsiung to Phoenix, Sunday
Yes, all of that was "Sunday.'' I use the term loosely because we crossed the international dateline on the way home, meaning that we actually landed in Phoenix Sunday night three hours before we took off from the Southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung (pronounced, Cow-shUNG).
And you thought Daylight Saving Time messed with your body clock.
As grueling as the day was -- starting with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call, a 90-minute high-speed train ride from Taipei to Kaohsiung, a baseball game in weather that would make Houston in July feel balmy, a mad dash to the airport and a 12-hour flight home to Phoenix -- something about this day felt refreshing.
About the day, about the baseball game, about the place and the people.
Maybe it was simply that what had been accomplished in this whirlwind trip was finally sinking in. At the start of it I had felt like there wasn't enough time for anything lasting to take hold. A few days of front-page headlines, a flurry of attention, a couple of games that may or may not be memorable. All of which could be forgotten in a few days or weeks time.
Baseball was already Taiwan's national pastime. It had been sullied of late by a gambling scandal. But the sport still had a place in the bones and blood of this nation.
A three-game exhibition tour would do little more than spike the blood pressure here.
But everything that happened on Sunday made me realize how wrong that assumption was.
It started with the sendoff from Taipei, where a hundred or so fans gathered at the entrance to the Sherwood Hotel to see the team off despite the early-morning departure.
Another group of fans was waiting at the train station, holding baseballs and hats and hoping for one last autograph or picture. Because of the hurry to catch the train, the players could only smile and wave, but you got the sense that even that was special for the people on the receiving end.
In Kaohsiung the reception at the train station and the ballpark was much of the same.
"The people have been terrific,'' Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "The people couldn't have been more enthusiastic or more cooperative. The security has been great and it's been necessary. But it's been necessary because of the enthusiasm of the people.''
Though the quick train ride had made the distance feel short, it was quickly apparent this part of Taiwan was quite different from the north. It was warm and humid here, without being sticky. Everything was greener and more lush.
The soft breeze coming in from the South China Sea always seemed to blow at just the right time.
Earlier in the trip, Chin-Lung Hu had told me that this part of Taiwan was baseball country. He and Hong-Chih Kuo had grown up about an hour north of here, in the coastal city of Tainan. But the feel there was much the same as in Kaohsiung.
Baseball may be the national pastime in all of Taiwan, but it is an obsession in the south.
The stadium here held four times as many fans as Tien Mu Stadium in Taipei and it filled up early. About an hour before the game, the drums started to beat.
A baseball game here feels like a ritual. Drums beating before every at-bat, chants and cheers echoing down from the stands.
Outside the stadium life seemed to stop. Those who'd missed out on tickets gathered outside the stadium gates to watch on big screens.
"I was tapping my foot by the end of the game,'' Torre said "The fans really made the trip for me, not only at the ballpark but in and around Taipei and Kaohsiung.
"Just to come this far and to realize how small our world is in regard to baseball is wonderful. Baseball has been my life and this was a great experience for me.''
Torre's done about a half a dozen of these goodwill trips in his career, starting in 1974 as a player for the Mets when he went to Japan.
His experiences, from Japan in 1974 with the Mets and 2004 with the Yankees, to China in 2008 with the Dodgers and now Taiwan in 2010 serve as a de facto time-lapse photographic essay on the growth of baseball in Asia and around the world.
It's when you ask why he keeps wanting to make these grueling trips that you realize how important they are.
"I just love the game,'' he says simply. "It's a great game.''
It's that love that connects men like Torre and the players who volunteered for the trip to the fans waving from the street corners Kaohsiung as the bus drove away and the trip came to a close.
We touched down in Phoenix around 6 p.m. "Sunday'' night, everyone still a bit weary from the long day and plane flight home across the Pacific Ocean.
The crew aboard the EVA Airlines charter flight had offered one last thanks before the flight landed, expressing how much the Dodgers visit had meant to the people of Taiwan.
After that, life went back to what it had been. Four players who'd made the trip had learned after Sunday's game they'd been sent down to minor league camp.
Torre was due back in the office Monday morning.
The team's excellent clubhouse manager Mitch Poole gave instructions on what should be done with all the gear everyone had taken on the trip. Travel manager Scott Akasaki made sure everyone filled out their customs declarations forms correctly.
There were no crowds waiting at the gate.
An hour and a half later, the team buses pulled back into the empty parking lots at Camelback Ranch. Eleven hours later, players would begin arriving for another routine day of spring training.
The game goes on.
Saturday night, Taipei
Hong-Chih Kuo had known something wasn't wrong for a few days now. Something in his elbow wasn't right. Not necessarily wrong, but not right either. Which is normal this time of year, but always something to worry about when you make your living throwing 97 mph fastballs with an elbow that's been under the knife four times already.
Still, Kuo was hoping the soreness would just go away after a few days, so he kept it to himself at first. No way he was going to stay back in Arizona and miss the Dodgers' trip to his homeland over a little spring training soreness.
But the elbow didn't feel better after the long flight on Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or Friday after he did a throwing session during the opener of the Dodgers three-game series here against an all-star team of professional Taiwanese players.
Saturday morning he finally had to speak up and tell the training staff. Later that afternoon he had a chat with Dodgers manager Joe Torre.
Torre wouldn't budge. Kuo was not going to pitch on Sunday. Torre just could not take the chance of his dynamic left-handed relief pitcher risking further injury by starting Sunday's game.
It was a pretty clear-cut decision. But that didn't make it any easier for Kuo to inform the Taiwanese press of the situation after Saturday's game. Already they were disappointed the second-game of the series had been rained out, now this.
There were no fewer than 60 reporters, camera crews and photographers in the hallway of Taipei's Tien Mu Stadium when Dodgers public relations man Josh Rawitch had to break the news to them. A few minutes later Kuo came around the corner and tried to explain the situation himself.
I don't speak Mandarin, but the expression on Kuo's face said it all. He was sullen and emotionally drained. This clearly was a huge disappointment. Not just for him personally, because he was planning to leave over 100 tickets for family and friends to Sunday's game, but for his country, which had so thoroughly embraced him, the Dodgers and baseball during this trip.
Later, when he came over to address the small contingent of American media covering the series, he admitted that he nearly broke down in tears when he was explaining the situation.
I'm not sure I fully appreciated what Kuo and his countryman Chin-lung Hu mean to their fans back home until this moment. Until then, their rock-star status in Taiwan was somewhat of a curiosity. Teammates would tease Kuo about his amusing Subway commercials, or ask Hu about the sheer number of camera crews that had been assigned to follow the two local stars every move during this trip.
(Seriously, how many television stations are there in Taiwan? Every time we leave the ballpark there are dozens of crews stationed at the exits. Then every time we arrive back at the Sherwood Hotel there are dozens more. They can't be the same people, right?)
But all that stuff is superficial. Fluffy novelty that could be true in any country, for any foreign-born major league player. This moment with Kuo in the hallway near tears was something else entirely.
This came from the heart and hurt in his gut.
"I hope they understand,'' Kuo said. "They have to I guess. [But] It's very sad, very tough. I wanted to pitch for my family. ... I will sign a lot of autographs [instead].''
As Kuo explained his feelings, I thought back on a conversation I'd had with Hu the day before we'd left. Baseball, Hu explained, was the national pastime in Taiwan. Not soccer like everywhere else in the world but America. Baseball.
As we travelled around this island nation once known as Formosa, which has been passed back and forth between Japan and China over the centuries, it was clear why baseball, with its reverence for history, detail and discipline is so beloved here.
Taiwan is one of the most modern nations in Asia. Parts of downtown Taipei rival the poshest sections of the grand European capitals of London or Paris or Berlin. Business is conducted at light speed. Engineering marvels, like the world's fastest elevator which ascends the Taipei 101 tower at 1010 meters/minute are celebrated as national treasures.
Baseball players who've mastered the unique skill set of the game, players like Kuo and Hu who have brought honor to their nation by reaching the pinnacle of the sport in America, are reverential figures.
"They never boos the players here,'' Kuo told me, when I asked why fans had cheered the success of the Dodger players during the games. "Never the players. The players are very respected. If they ever boo, it's the umpires.''
It was this weight of expectation and responsibility that Kuo and Hu carried with onboard for this trip home. I can't even imagine how difficult it must've been for Kuo to disclose his injury to the Dodgers staff, knowing that it might jeopardize his ability to pitch on his home soil.
All he could do was hope they understood.
Saturday afternoon, Taipei
We knew it was going to be a long day right from the start when Joe Torre took a phone call from Joseph Reaves, the Dodgers' director of international operations, confirming what we all suspected.
"They're going to do everything they can to get this game in,'' Torre says.
Unfortunately, the fans who started arriving about 12:30 p.m. hoping to catch some batting practice saw nothing but a bunch of guys on the grounds crew taking sandbags on and off the tarp.
Every time I looked up in the stands, the fans were waiting patiently, covered in rain slickers and huddled under umbrellas. I couldn't believe how patient and passionate they were. You could tell how excited they were for the game just walking around Tien Mou Stadium.
I happened to be wearing my credential as I went to a local food court to grab some lunch. About 12 people stopped me on the street to say how much they liked baseball and the Dodgers. The restaurant I ended up going to even wanted to give me 10 percent off because I was here for the baseball games.
The Dodgers players spent most of the day in the clubhouse or the indoor batting cages.
Days like these make you glad guys like John Lindsey and Xavier Paul are on the trip.
Lindsey is one of the good guys you find around baseball. A career minor leaguer with a million stories to tell.
He's 33 and never played a day in the majors, but somehow has managed to get on this trip and the Dodgers' trip to China in 2008.
A few years ago he retired, only to be talked out of it by Dodgers minor league coach Lorenzo Bundy.
"I want to keep playing as long as I can,'' Lindsey says. ``Hopefully I'll make it up to L.A. this year. But if not, I'll keep playing. I love the game, you know. And I make more playing than I could doing anything back home.''
Lindsey is kind of like the older brother for a lot of the younger guys on this trip. He and Paul have an instant rapport because they grew up about an hour and a half away from each other. Lindsey in Hattiesburg, Miss., and Paul in Slidell, La.
During the rain delay Paul, Lindsey, Bundy and I sat around in the dugout killing time, talking about whatever and trying to estimate how many fans fit in this stadium.
"I'd say it's between 5,500-7,500,'' Lindsey says. I've been in a lot of these small ballparks in the minor leagues, I can tell things like that.''
He's also been in a lot of rainouts.
"How long do we hang out during a rain delay? Depends on the day of the week,'' he says. "If it's a Monday, probably only about 30 minutes. If it's a Friday through Sunday, we'll be there all night, pack your lunch.
"If it's fireworks night and they've got to sell tickets, they're going to keep the stands full as long as they can.''
Paul's only 25, but he's got a few stories to tell, too. That and a quick wit.
"I've been in games in the minor leagues where we've sat out there two days just waiting to get an inning in,'' he says. "Today we'll be here for a while because of the fans.''
Normally big leaguers leave the ballpark as soon as they can. It's not that they don't care, it's the 162-game grind. You have to trim as much time off your day as you can over the course of a season, just to get through it.
It wasn't like that here in Taiwan though.
The guys who made this trip wanted to come and were excited about it.
After a few hours, it became clear the rain was getting worse, not better. So both teams ran out onto the field in the pouring rain and threw souvenirs to the crowd.
"These people love their baseball out here,'' Paul says. "We wanted to give them a show.''
Saturday morning, Taipei
Apparently I'm late. I thought I was 10 minutes early for the 8:15 a.m. bus to the stadium, but when I make it downstairs around 8:05 everyone is already on the bus waiting for me.
The seat right in front of Joe Torre is the only one open and for some reason I feel like I'm going to get fined.
Torre's cool though so I play it that way too.
"Good morning," he says, while chomping down on a cigar he never actually smokes.
"You get your workout in this morning?" I ask, knowing how disciplined he has been about getting 30-40 minutes of cardio work on the bike every morning during spring training.
Friday at the ballpark, while all of us were dealing with some rugged jetlag after the 15-hour flight and a morning of running-all-over-town sightseeing, the 69-year old Torre showed up looking refreshed and energized.
"I'd be a pain in the butt if I didn't get my workout in this morning," he says.
Still, saying you're going to get in a workout on a trip like this and actually doing it are two different things. I've been saying I'm going to get a workout in the last week and a half here and in Arizona but, um, let's just say I'm saving my energy for my job.
On this morning, Torre has too.
"No, I didn't even try and make it in," he says. "I had breakfast instead. Needed to get some fuel in me. Don't think I've had an actual meal since we got on the plane."
When we get to the ballpark, it's clear why Torre needs it. It's going to be a long day ahead. First an hour-long forum with local baseball coaches and business leaders in which Torre patiently answers questions about everything from Alex Rodriguez to Manny Ramirez, George Steinbrenner and Derek Jeter.
Every word of it is compelling and yet Torre is just talking off the cuff.
Twelve years filling up the notebooks and tape recorders of the media horde in New York tends to hone that skill. But it's Torre's ability to always hit the right note, even in culturally sensitive issues like questions about shortstop Chin-lung Hu's lack of offensive prowess that makes Torre so good.
"His defensive ability is no question at a major league level," Torre says, making sure to praise Hu first. "What's most important for Hu is to find one hitting technique that will work for him and stick with it. He's experimenting with a few things ... but I like what he's doing right as far as not always trying to pull the ball."
After an hour or so of questions the moderator, a local TV star named Dean Yuan thanks Torre for participating and apologizes for taking so much of his time.
"That's OK," Torre says. "As long as I can have a water near me so I can keep lubricating. I've enjoyed this. You ask good questions."
Friday morning and afternoon, Taipei
Every once in a while on a trip like this things just work out perfectly. Ninety percent of the time you spend running around, asking directions and generally spinning your wheels as only a stupid foreigner can, but every once in a while dumb luck strikes and things just line up perfectly.
Today was originally supposed to be a sightseeing and recovery day, but when the first two games sold out quickly, Bros Sports, the marketing firm organizing this event, decided to schedule another game for Friday night.
That meant whatever sightseeing anyone wanted to do pretty much had to be packed into Friday morning, which wasn't as hard as you'd expect, considering just about everyone woke up between 4 and 6 a.m. whether they liked it or not.
Around 11 a.m. a group of us went with James Loney and minor leaguers Prentice Redman and Kenley Jansen to visit what used to be the tallest building in the world, the 1,670-foot-tall Taipei 101.
After 25 minutes or so admiring the views of downtown Taipei, Dodgers public relations guru Josh Rawitch gets an e-mail.
"Manny wants to say hello,'' Rawitch says. "He's apparently having lunch on the 85th floor and he wants us to come say 'Hello.' ''
Yes, that Manny.
Same guy who has been in a bit of a cocoon as far as the media is concerned since arriving to spring training two weeks ago. He'd been friendly to me on the plane ride over, but this was still a bit of a shock.
As quiet as he'd been all spring, I figured I'd be lucky if he said three words to us on this trip.
Of all the skyscrapers in all the world, he had to walk into ... ours!
After we figured out how to get from the 89th floor to the 85th floor -- which sounds easy but actually involved going to four different sets of elevators -- we found Manny finishing up the last of his shark fin soup and noodles.
"It was good, it was free,'' he said, laughing.
He offered some to Loney and the other players, who politely declined, chatted for a couple of minutes, then jetted off down the elevator to his next public appearance at the Taiwan International Flora exhibit.
While Manny made his way across town in a tricked-out white Hummer, us media types followed in a yellow cab. Somehow we beat him to the exhibit, which gave us time to again experience some of the amusing differences between media here in Asia and back in the States.
First, I was asked to sign a sheet with my name and affiliation, whereupon I'd be entered into a drawing for an autographed Ramirez baseball. Then, just like at last night's welcome press conference, the music started playing.
This time they were bumpin' Lady Gaga, which made me laugh out loud and lose my poker face.
As the crowd stirred, the emcee announced, "Manny will be here in a few minutes, but I don't know what's going to happen. He makes more money than all of us in this room together.''
Some things never change.
But, sure enough, Manny showed up a couple of minutes later to raucous applause.
The agenda at this event was to introduce Ramirez, have him exchange gifts with local dignitaries, then plant a tree.
"I thank you guys for letting the Dominican players come here to play the game I love,'' Manny said. "It's a great experience to be here in Taiwan, that's why I came here. I like to travel and see the world. I like your culture here. You treat everybody with respect, and I'm just happy to be here."
The local media loved it.
So, apparently, did Manny, who snapped photos of the crowd on a digital camera he'd bought earlier in the day at the mall.
I caught up to him as he exited the stage from the Flora event.
"Hey Ramona,'' he said. "How do you like this? I'm a paparazzi now.''
He was going to say something else, but then the crowd came rushing after him, almost carrying him to the white Hummer waiting outside to take him back to the team hotel.
Thursday evening, Taiwan
I'm not quite sure how they did it. Fifteen hours on a plane and not once did we ever lose the sun.
Finally, as our EVA Air 777 charter touched down at Taipei's international airport about 6 p.m. local time, it felt like dusk was approaching.
The day, however, was just getting started.
We'd heard people were crazy about baseball here in Taiwan. Shortstop Chin-lung Hu, one of two native Taiwanese players on the Dodgers' roster tried to explain it to me before we left the Dodgers spring training complex at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz.
"Baseball is the national sport,'' he said. "That is what we play. I'm not sure why it's not soccer. But everyone in Taiwan plays baseball.''
Still, it came as something of a surprise when several hundred fans and a throng of camera crews were waiting outside the gate our flight was due to arrive at.
Fans had started lining up at 1 p.m.
Manny Ramirez, as expected, was the biggest attraction, but native sons Hu and pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo were also very popular.
At one point, first baseman James Loney stepped out of the charter bus to sign a few autographs and it was like Beatlemania outside the airport. As the crowd around him swelled, Loney signed a few more autographs, but went back in the bus after a couple minutes.
A police escort accompanied the charter buses through rush hour traffic to the Sherwood Hotel in downtown Taipei, where another throng of fans and photographers awaited the team's arrival.
"Wow, this is crazy,'' outfielder Xavier Paul said. "There was so much energy out there.''
Hotel workers lined up to greet the players, applauding as they passed through the hallways on their way to check in.
Several hundred local media were already stationed in a ballroom awaiting the team's press conference.
When the rosters for this trip were first announced, there was some local disappointment the team wasn't sending all of its main players, as was the case in October 1993 when the Dodgers were the first team to visit Taiwan.
That sentiment has been quieted though; Kuo and Hu did interviews via satellite explaining why it would be so hard for all of the starters to leave spring training on such a grueling trip just a few weeks before the regular season.
"They didn't understand at first,'' Kuo said. "But we explained it to them.''
I have no idea how manager Joe Torre found the energy after such a long flight -- with only about 15 minutes up in his room to freshen up before the press conference -- but he charmed the reporters nonetheless, as he so often did back in New York as manager of the Yankees.
"I'm looking forward to being here,'' Torre said. "This is a part of the world I've never been to. I was always curious, knowing that your Little League teams used to win the Little League World Series all the time so I knew baseball was very big and I'm very anxious to get a look at the city.''
Torre then exchanged gifts with local dignitaries and fielded numerous questions about Kuo, Hu and his former Taiwanese ace with the Yankees, Chien-Ming Wang.
Music played during the press conference and reporters openly applauded after each answer.
Later, the hotel put on a lavish feast for the players to meet and mingle with local baseball and business leaders. A live band played a mix of Taiwanese music and songs like "La Bamba'' and "Pretty Woman.''
Afterwards, Paul, minor leaguers Trayvon Robinson, John Lindsey and Brian Barton decided to take a quick walk around the neighborhood.
About 20 fans were still waiting outside the lobby of the hotel, waiting to meet the players.
Lindsey, 33, a career minor-leaguer from Hattiesburg, Miss., walked by most of them without getting a request. A man suddenly came up to him with a stack of pictures. As he flipped through them, it was obvious he'd printed photos of every player who'd made the trip.
"This you?'' the man asked Lindsey, holding out a pen for him to sign the photo.
"Wow, I can't believe he found that photo,'' Lindsey said afterward.
I can. These are real baseball fans over here.
Wednesday morning, Arizona
"Surprised" is the wrong word.
"Amused" is a little more accurate to describe Joe Torre's reaction to Manny Ramirez's choice to travel with the Dodgers for a three-game exhibition series in Taiwan this week.
"Manny was saying a lot of things," Torre said. "I guess it didn't really surprise me all that much, but he toys with you all the time."
That pretty much sums up the general sentiment of the Dodgers regarding Ramirez's choice to make the 15-hour flight to the island nation.
Though club officials insisted that they had no reason to believe Ramirez would change his mind at the last minute, just about everyone who gathered for the early morning departure from the Dodgers' spring training facility here in Glendale, Ariz., was keeping their eyes peeled for Ramirez's arrival.
Shortly after 8 a.m., he drove into the parking lot, took his bags out and lined up for a security screening before boarding the team bus to the airport.
"I'm happy; he'll keep me company," Torre said.
Most of the Dodgers' regular players elected to stay in Camelback Ranch to continue normal spring training.
Though a charter flight is about 3,000 times more comfortable than your typical commercial flight to Asia, 15 hours on a plane is still 15 hours.
Said Ramirez's close friend and teammate Ronnie Belliard, "Long way. Long way. I'm about to sleep for 10 hours, watch two movies and when I wake up, hopefully we'll be there. Long way, though."
It's not like the Dodgers begged Ramirez to go.
General manager Ned Colletti has publicly stated he would've preferred that Ramirez stay in Arizona.
So why in the world would Ramirez, who is coming off one of the more tumultuous seasons of his career, volunteer for such a trip?
"I'm excited, let's go," Ramirez said, offering little explanation as we stood in line before boarding the team bus. Still, it was something, considering the fact Ramirez had been declining every interview request the past 10 days or so.
The short answer is that he's going because he has a few endorsement opportunities there.
But Torre thinks there's more to it.
"You don't make a trip this far unless you really have a desire to go someplace," Torre said. "I think it's curiosity. I've never been there before. I'm curious, too."Ramona Shelburne is a columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.