By RALPH JENNINGS
The Associated Press
NEW TAIPEI CITY, Taiwan — When Wang Wei-chen had a base hit for the Chinatrust Brothers, no one booed or cheered from the stands at the suburban Taipei ballpark. No one hurled insults at the umpires. And no one yelled the Chinese-language line of encouragement “add oil” to either team.
The 12,150 blue plastic seats were devoid of fans Friday night for the game between Chinatrust Brothers and Fubon Guardians, down from the average crowd of 6,000 at professional baseball games in Taiwan. No fans have come to any games here since play started on April 11.
Taiwan’s five-team Chinese Professional Baseball League is barring spectators over concerns of spreading the coronavirus in a crowded space. But Taiwan has relatively few cases of COVID-19, so the league decided it was safe to let in players, coaches, cheerleaders, costumed mascots, face mask-wearing batboys and the media.
“We’d like to have fans coming into the stadium to cheer us on, yet due to the outbreak they can’t,” said Wang, an infielder for Brothers. “We are still lucky, since we have not stopped our season and people can still see us in this way.”
Other baseball leagues around the world have been postponed to May or later. Beyond baseball, organized sports worldwide have canceled or delayed competition. The Tokyo Olympics have been pushed back a year.
At the Taiwan ballpark, about 150 placards were placed upright on the seats. They wished luck to particular players from the Guardians home team, some with cut-out effigies, and thanked Taiwan’s medical personnel for keeping coronavirus caseloads low on the Western Pacific island.
Rock and roll sounds blasted out of the bleachers as if in a normal game, and players did some cheering for their teammates to replace the din of fans.
“I think it feels like a real game,” said Mac Huang, a longtime baseball fan and middle school teacher in Taipei who is following the league now online. Fan-less games, he said, are “a good way to stop coronavirus, but no one knows when coronavirus will stop, and it’s good to have the games on anyway.”
League officials delayed the season twice from its originally scheduled opening day on March 14, and only started competition after close consultation with the Ministry of Health and Welfare. They’re ready to allow all 240 regular games in empty parks through the season’s end in mid-November, if needed.
Taiwan has had just 428 coronavirus cases among a population of 23 million. Bars, restaurants, shops and schools still run normally.
Taiwan has limited the spread by imposing flight restrictions and through contact tracing of anyone who comes near a confirmed patient.
“We have to be grateful to Taiwan’s citizens for keeping the outbreak under control and let us do this,” league commissioner Wu Chih-yang said.
To keep fans watching on their phones, PCs and TVs, the league is encouraging teams to give their stadiums a realistic, lively feel. That’s where the placards and cheerleaders come in. Online game commentary is being broadcast in English as well as Chinese this year in case fans overseas want to watch a live season.
“Because there is so much room up there in the stands, it leaves space for creativity and each team can be creative as it wishes,” the commissioner said.
Teams are still making some money from broadcast games, he added. The league charges a subscription fee for online viewers.
In Taiwan’s Taoyuan city, the unbeaten Rakuten Monkeys are charming fans by placing 40 mannequins in the stands – to be sent to local clothing stores once their duties are done. Stadium seats support four long LED-lit display boards that twinkle with slogans to inspire base hits and home runs.
The Monkeys, last season’s champions, deploy six robots to bang drums along with the cheerleaders. Fans are excited enough that about 50 of them have sponsored the LED boards, cheer squad leader Eric Chiu said.
A Monkeys game on April 15 attracted about 650,000 viewers in different countries, according to the Taiwan government-backed Central News Agency.
“They think what we’re doing now is OK, but we still hope this outbreak passes soon,” Chiu said. “It’s better to have the fans back.”
Guardians manager Hong I-chung is less sure.
“If you ask the players, they won’t find it so different actually,” Hong told reporters before Friday’s game. “They need to focus on the field, and often noise from fans can throw off their state of mind.”
He particularly noted the impact of players being “scolded” by comments from fans in the stands.
Other people on the field Friday said they were ready to play as usual. Pre-game chatter with reporters focused more on hitting, pitching and lineups than on the lack of fans or Taiwan baseball’s world outlier status. The Brothers won 11-0.
“The fact that were playing in front of empty seats, that’s fine, we’re still playing the game, getting the opportunity to come out here and play,” said Rob Ducey, a former Major League Baseball outfielder who is now a hitting coach for the Guardians.