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Breaking Into the Japanese `Bigs'

Teams from Taiwan have dominated the Little League World Series. Now Taiwanese players are becoming stars in Japan. Can the US major leagues be far behind?

THIS year something unusual happened in Williamsport, Pa., at the Little League World Series: A team from the United States won. The 14 boys from Trumbull, Conn., were the first home-grown team to capture that championship in six years. They had to overcome a formidable opponent - the representatives from Taiwan who won the crown the last 3 years, and 13 of the past 22 years.

When the pitcher from Trumbull was out on the mound, he may have imagined himself as Roger Clemens, blowing a fastball past some New York Yankee. But what does a Taiwanese ace from Kaohsiung dream of?

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That Taiwanese hurler probably sees himself as Kuo Yuan-tsu, who became a national hero by leading his team to a Little League World Series title in 1969, the beginning of Taiwan's reign. Kuo Yuan-tsu, like increasing numbers of Taiwan's best, went on to fame and fortune in Japan's professional leagues. Last year, as a relief ace for the Chunichi Dragons, he won the Most Valuable Player award while leading his team to the pennant.

The American major leagues are still the destination that most young players from Australia to Venezuela aim for. But in East Asia, where baseball is played with unmatched passion, getting to the ``bigs'' means playing in Japan.

Kuo Tai-yuan, the star pitcher of Japan's powerhouse pro team, the Seibu Lions, is considered the greatest player to come out of Taiwan. The lean right-hander caught the attention of pro scouts from Toronto to Tokyo when he led his Taiwan team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His blazing speed and remarkable control earned Kuo Tai-yuan the nickname ``the Orient Express.''

The Toronto Blue Jays offered the talented pitcher a large sum, reportedly $1 million, to sign. But many Japanese teams were also pursuing him with equal fervor.

``At that time, my feeling was to go to Japan,'' Kuo Tai-yuan recalls. ``But a US team was such a big dream.'' In the end, he chose Japan, more out of fear of failure and cultural isolation than anything else. ``American baseball players are very different from me, in terms of power, strength, and their character,'' he says. ``I thought I could do well in Japan.''

He was right. Kuo hit Japanese pro ball in 1985 much as Mets phenom Dwight Gooden had hit New York the year before. In his first games, he pitched a string of shutouts, including a no-hitter. Only an arm injury later that year slowed him down. The Lions have won the Pacific League crown every year since Kuo arrived, and the Japanese equivalent of the World Series for the past three years. Last year he was the second-leading pitcher in the league, with a 13-3 won-lost record and a 2.41 earned run average.

Greg (Boomer) Wells, an American who plays for the Hankyu Braves in Japan, remembers getting only one hit off the Orient Express that first year. (Wells is no slouch at the plate. The previous year the strapping first baseman was the first American to win the batting ``triple crown'' here, leading the Japanese leagues in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in.)

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``He threw over 90 miles an hour and could put it on the dime,'' Wells says of Kuo, with a sense of awe in his voice. Kuo's most dangerous pitch is a slider, a hard curve ball that he throws at fastball speed.

Kuo is one of six Chinese players now in the Japanese big leagues. The Chinese are counted among the quota of foreign players - two per team, plus one in the minors - who are permitted to play professional ball here.

Most of the foreign players are Americans, former major leaguers. With few exceptions, they are treated as mercenaries. They play usually for one or two years, or for as long as they perform well. Many of them complain of being isolated by language from their teammates, and of not understanding the way the Japanese have adapted the game of baseball. A few, like Wells or Warren Cromartie, formerly of the Montreal Expos and now the star of the Yomiuri Giants, have made a success of baseball here.

The Taiwanese also describe feelings of loneliness. Kuo spoke through an interpreter for his first year, but now speaks Japanese fluently. Some Chinese players have married Japanese women and even taken Japanese citizenship, as Dragons star Kuo Yuan-tsu did in September.

The Japanese started playing baseball in 1873, taught by American schoolteachers. It came as part of the Westernization of feudal Japan, which had only recently been opened to the world after more than two centuries of self-imposed isolation.

The Japanese took to the game with fervor. In turn, they spread it to Korea and Taiwan, which were Japanese colonies (from 1905 and 1895, respectively) until the end of World War II.

For a while after the war, baseball in Taiwan fell into disfavor, along with other things Japanese. But according to baseball writer Robert Whiting, the author of two books on Japanese baseball, it revived under the influence of the US military presence in Taiwan. (A similar process took place in South Korea.)

Like his schoolmates, Lions star Kuo Tai-yuan took up baseball in elementary school, joining a local Little League team in fifth grade. Like their Japanese mentors, the Chinese believe in the virtues of intense practice and discipline. ``American Little League players are just playing,'' Kuo says. ``It's different in Taiwan.''

Still, baseball was just a hobby. ``There was no pro team in Taiwan,'' he says. ``There was no goal.'' He planned to follow his father's footsteps and become a civil servant.

Soon Chinese stars may have more options. There are plans to start pro baseball in Taiwan next year, Kuo says. And some may brave the culture gap and try the United States. Even though Kuo enjoys his star status in Japan, he admits that when it comes to his old dream of playing in the US major leagues, ``I am giving it a second thought now.''

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