Have Arm Will Travel: Foreign Baseball Players in Taiwan

Imported players are a hit in Taiwan’s professional baseball league

Professional baseball pitcher Zack Segovia says that the idea of playing in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) was first introduced to him in 2015.

“I was playing in Mexico, I’d gotten released from Triple-A, and they said, ‘Hey, do you want to go play in Taiwan?’” the right-handed pitcher who did several stints in Major League Baseball (MLB) recalls. “And like everyone, my initial response was, no, I want to play in Japan or Korea.”

The Korean and Japanese leagues are ranked highly in global competitiveness, and offer the most lucrative contracts outside of the MLB, with foreign players in Japan earning in the millions of US dollars. Yet without offers from either league, Segovia decided to play in Taiwan after all. He began his career in Taiwan with the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions in 2015, then returned the following summer to pitch for the Lamigo Monkeys, where he continues to play.

Now, having also pitched for Taiwan’s CPBL All-Star team in its first ever victory over Japan’s World Baseball Classic team in an exhibition game this past February, and with ongoing success in the CPBL, Segovia is glad he made the choice, citing fair salaries, high quality of play, opportunities for recognition by other leagues, and a passionate fan base.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to come play here,” he says. “I’m not playing it (baseball) because I want to be rich or famous – I’m playing because I love the game and all the opportunity here. I’ve been accepted here in this country and I enjoy it. And seriously, I am a celebrity here.”

The four teams of the CPBL – the Lamigo Monkeys, Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions, Chinatrust Brothers, and Fubon Guardians – are each allowed up to three foreign players on their roster, and the imports interviewed for this story expressed great satisfaction with both the league and Taiwan generally.

“The CPBL brings forth different challenges that make the game here interesting, exciting, and difficult,” wrote Bruce Billings, a pitcher from San Diego who has made appearances in the MLB for the Colorado Rockies, New York Yankees, and Oakland A’s, and now plays for the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions.

The CPBL was established in 1989 and though it represents the top-tier of play in a baseball-mad country, the league has struggled with game-fixing, mob infiltration, and other scandals, resulting in a loss of credibility and support from local fans. The last scandal, in 2009, nearly killed the league.

Since then the league has revived. Years of scandal-free play since the 2009 game-fixing scandal have restored faith in the league, while a focus on the fan experience, including revamped stadiums, cheerleaders, stadium shows, and many other perks, has succeeded in boosting attendance.

Yet perhaps the biggest factor in the revival was the signing of celebrated former Boston Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez in 2013 by the EDA Rhinos.  Ramirez’s brief four months with the Rhinos (since sold and renamed the Fubon Guardians) gave him a showcase during his comeback attempt after he had retired in disgrace in 2011. Forty-nine games, 43 RBIs, and eight homeruns later, Ramirez was out of Taiwan to play for a Triple-A team in the Texas Rangers farm system. He never made it back to the MLB, however, and in 2017 headed to the Japanese Kochi Fighting Dogs of the independent Shikoku Island League Plus, which is not affiliated with the more famous Nippon Professional Baseball league.

While Ramirez’s abbreviated season in Taiwan wasn’t able to restore his own career, it did help restore local fans’ interest in a much-maligned league while raising the profile of the CPBL around the world.

“The Manny Ramirez signing was a very big deal – that was only four years removed from a big scandal and he brought massive star power to the league,” observes Brandon DuBreuil, founder of the website CPBL English and an informed commentator on all things CPBL. We’d never seen anyone of his super star caliber power before that, and we probably never will again.”

Fubon Guardians ace Mike Loree in the dugout

Mike Loree, star pitcher for the Fubon Guardians, has experienced both pre-Manny and post-Manny CPLB. Drafted by the Lamigo Monkeys in 2012 out of the independent Atlantic League, the 6’5” right-hander from New Jersey has pitched in the CPBL ever since, except for a brief stint in Korea. He says the quality of play has improved considerably over these years.

“From the time I got here (in 2012) until now, the league has changed for the better,” he says. “More players, better players, more (Taiwanese) guys that have come back from the States, so the talent level is definitely higher. There’s a big difference.”

Mike Loree pitching during a recent game against the Lamigo Monkeys

Each of the foreign players has taken a distinct path to Taiwan, yet all share some commonalities. Most have some MLB experience but couldn’t quite maintain a place in the U.S. big leagues due to injuries, inadequate performance, or simply bad luck. Now in their 30s, many are facing increasing competition in the minor leagues from younger players even as they have started families and face rising financial strains.

Japan and Korea are generally first and second choice destinations for such athletes, as those leagues offer huge salaries, but the competition for very limited slots, three or four per team, is fierce. Taiwan offers a third option, and with the continued ascension of the league, one that will likely become even more attractive in the future.

The Taiwanese teams almost invariably fill these slots with pitchers, not because of a lack of pitching talent among Taiwanese players, but rather because Taiwan’s best pitchers tend to seek their fortunes abroad.

Around the world, pitchers are in higher demand than position players. “You can teach a guy to hit and catch and run, but you can’t teach a guy to throw 95 miles per hour, so that’s a big reason,” explains Brandon DuBreuil. Taiwanese pitchers have done well in Japan and Korea as well as in the minor leagues in the United States and even in the majors. Tsao Chin-hui was the first Taiwanese pitcher to play for an MLB team when he started for the Colorado Rockies in 2003, and Wang Chien-ming was one of MLB’s best pitchers when he played for the New York Yankees from 2005 through 2008. Wei-yin Chen starred in the Baltimore Orioles rotation in recent years and is now with the Miami Marlins.

In the absence of its best native-born pitchers, the CPBL is considered a hitter’s league, with scores routinely reaching double digits. Canadian Scott Richmond, who pitched with the Toronto Blue Jays and now for the Fubon Guardians, says that promoting an offensive league is a way to generate excitement for the fans, but adds that imported foreign pitchers are helping put a lid on that.  “It’s helping out that they bring the foreigners over to try and control the hitting — it’s a very offensive game.”

Fubon Guardian cheerleaders rouse the crowd

Acceptable salaries are one of the primary attractions bringing imported players to Taiwan. Professional baseball – like all professional sports is a tough way to make a living. For every multimillion dollar MLB contract signed, thousands of other players strive in obscurity and near poverty.

The minimum MLB salary is US$500,000 per year, and the average salary US$4.4 million. But unsigned A-Advanced and Double-A minor league players earn as little as US$1,500 and US$1,700 per month, respectively, and many are forced to work temporary jobs during the offseason and even live rent-free with “host families.” Even experienced Triple-A minor league players with the greatest likelihood of getting advanced to the majors earn little more than US$82,000 per year, barely a middle-class income in many parts of the United States. Players in independent leagues earn even less.

“You just don’t make that much money in the minor leagues; you’re almost paying to play,” says Loree.

Taiwan offers an average of US$15,000 per month to its foreign players. Factor in housing and most meals, and foreign players in the CPBL can live quite comfortably.

The CPBL can also be a ticket back to the big leagues, or at least the bigger leagues of Japan and Korea, with scouts monitoring the league and buying the contracts for players, including foreign players, from Taiwanese teams.

On the other hand, the league is just as volatile as everywhere else, and players can be let go easily as well. Chris Seddon, who was interviewed for this story, was released by the Fubon Guardians in late June.

Richmond is sanguine about the risks of being traded or let go. “It’s not up to me; baseball’s never been up to me. I just try to make the decision hard for them.”

All of the pitchers interviewed for this story say that they are happy to be playing in Taiwan, but did note several challenges that they face both in the lifestyle and the playing style.

Although teams provide translators for their foreign players, communication can still be an issue. “There are unwritten rules about respect between peers and staff, and lines that shouldn’t be crossed,” observed Billings in an email. “Messages can be lost in translation if spoken with the wrong tone of voice or at the wrong time.”

The coaching is very Japanese-style, according to players, with little instruction from the coach to the players. “And that’s fine,” says Segovia. “I’ve been pitching professionally for over 15 years, so I don’t need you to teach me how to throw a curve ball.” Segovia adds that the coaching staff will watch out for problems and are willing to assist if needed, but essentially their attitude is “Do your work and get your job done.”

Taiwan’s intense subtropical heat and humidity – and often incessant rainfall – also add to the challenge. “The weather here is also a force to be reckoned with,” noted Billings, adding, “I’ve never sweated so much on the field in my life.”

Rainfall is another issue, and during research for this story in early June, this writer was able to attend only one game that didn’t get cancelled due to rain. The rain limits the amount of outdoor practice as well as play, something that is very important for pitchers to maintain their strength and speed.

None of the CPBL teams besides the Lamigo Monkeys have an actual home field, and home games can be played in various stadiums and sports venues throughout the island. While the constant travel might be merely a nuisance, the inconsistent quality of the playing fields, particularly the pitcher’s mounds, creates real risk for the pitchers.

Zeke Spruill of the Lamigo Monkeys winds up

“Mechanically speaking, a pitcher has to produce more power and energy on a flat mound than a mound that has more slope,” noted Billings, adding that he has seen “many pitchers get injured here in their shoulders, elbows, and backs. As a pitcher, I feel quite certain that inconsistent playing surfaces play a huge role.”

Inconsistent calls by umpires is another issue raised by several players. “Remaining consistent with inconsistent conditions is a challenge for any player in the CPBL,” said Billings.

The most common complaint heard, though, is that with only four teams, the league is too small. With the same teams playing one another so frequently, hitters become more familiar with individual pitchers, making it easier to adapt and get hits.

Also, the small number of CPBL teams means that the 200 or so players in Taiwan’s own minor league have little opportunity to advance their careers, which could stifle the future development of the league.

Nevertheless, with stadiums being regularly filled, merchandising on the upswing, and the league’s scandal ridden past behind it, CPBL players and fans are optimistic about the league’s prospects, as baseball continues to weave its magic for fans and players alike.

“You’re hitting a round ball with a rounded bat – if you hit with this part of the bat, it goes over the fence, but with just a slightly different part of the bat it’s a pop-up to short,” observes Segovia. “There are no guarantees. And that’s why people like it. And that’s why I’m gonna play for as long as I can.”

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