WHEN TAIWAN CAME TO CALL

WHEN TAIWAN CAME TO CALL

By STEVEN TRAVERS

Today, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is in Taiwan. This issue has been with us all my life. When I was 18 years old, I was unwittingly part of a little known but memorable chapter of the Cold War. I played baseball for Redwood High School in California. We were considered the number one program in the country. One day our coach, Al Endriss, told us we would be playing the Taiwan national team. The events leading up to this day were shrouded in politics.

In 1949, Mao Tse-tung and the Communists took over Red China. Chaing Kai-shek and the Nationalists fled to the island of Formosa. The United States backed the Nationalists militarily and politically. Eventually Formosa became known as Taiwan, with American fighter jets flying overhead.

The American influence was great, and the Taiwanese began playing baseball, just as the Japanese had become “Americanized” by the sport after World War II. Their little league teams became champions, winning year after year in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

The 1972 Little League World Series champions came from I-Ning, and had remained together as a team. Now they were all 17- and 18-year old high school seniors. They were also the Taiwan national champions, and in the spring of 1977 they began a tour of the United States.

They were a juggernaut, going 8-0 against East Coast competition, which included some college teams. They scored 14 runs a game and had yet to give up a single run. The purpose of this tour was to convince America they were “just like us”; that is they played baseball too.

In 1972 President Richard Nixon had opened up diplomatic relations with China, and as part of the agreement Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed that the U.S. would adhere to a “one China policy.” It was a difficult balancing act, since on the one hand we appeased Mao, and on the other continued to support the Nationalists. 

In 1976 Jimmy Carter was elected, and the Taiwanese were desperate that a weak Democrat would give them up to Communism. That was when they decided to go on a diplomatic offensive, using baseball. Since our Redwood team was the best in the United States at the time, it was proposed that we play the Taiwan champions. When asked whether we would accept the challenge, Coach Al Endriss responded like Douglas MacArthur: “We shall play them!”

The game was played on our field at Redwood. First we had a lunch at the school cafeteria, and the Taiwan players looked larger than life. We were just a bunch of California beach boys with little political acumen.

When we arrived at the field, I saw the Taiwan team taking a form of “batting practice.” It consisted of a pitcher throwing very hard to a hitter standing on the left field foul line, with no catcher. Each pitch was straight and true, a strike, and the hitter would expertly bat each ball to a particular fielder. It was astonishing, and made me agree with former Boston Red Sox southpaw Bill “Spaceman” Lee who once said, “The best team I ever saw was the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, the 1968 USC Trojan,s and any Taiwan little league team.”

They say 7,000 people were at Redwood that day. The highway was jammed and there was no parking for miles. We outdrew the San Francisco Giants’ game. Redwood played them tough but lost 2-1 in extra innings. Still, our performance was so exemplary the game was seen as the catapult to eventually winning the national championship of 1977. Later, Redwood was voted National High School Baseball Program of the Decade (1970s) by The Sporting News, and the Marin Independent Journal voted it the greatest sporting even ever in the county.

It certainly made everybody respect the Taiwanese for their discipline and love of a game we invented, and helped them survive the Carter years until a Republican President, Ronald Reagan, could be elected and provide the beleaguered island nation support for Democracy in a troubled world.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “So it goes.”

Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.

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