Summer Stock

Influx of players from Taiwan strengthens Alaska league




As most of the nation's top college players venture toward various college summer leagues scattered throughout the country, there are a few musts that each player must bring. They'll bring their glove, bat and peculiar good-luck charm, but the idea of carrying a Mandarin Chinese-to-English Dictionary onto the plane rarely enters most ballplayers' mind.

That is unless the 20-something-year-old in question is heading to the Alaska Baseball League, which since 2005 has seen an influx of Taiwanese college baseball players into one of the more prestigious summer leagues in the nation.

Now, what's Mandarin for "nice catch"?

Open To New Ideas

It all started with a phone call.

Lin-Hua Wei, head coach of Taiwan's World Baseball Classic national team as well as at the National Taiwan Physical Education College, contacted CSMG agent Alan Chang to see if any U.S. summer college leagues would take some of his players. With the increased global climate of baseball, there was a feeling among Taiwanese coaches that their players needed to face better—and in the case U.S.—talent.

"They mentioned about the need for their hitters to get better," Chang said. "They just don't see that consistently better pitching, during their regular college season. And the pitchers don't see more consistent more power lineup (as) playing against American teams."

And there aren't many better places to gain that type of experience than summers in Alaska, traditionally one of the strongest summer college leagues. Additionally, the Alaska Baseball League isn't tied to the same NCAA restrictions as the Cape Cod League or other summer college leagues. So it's no surprise that when Chang contacted Dennis Mattingly, general manager of the Anchorage Bucs, he was all for the idea.

"We contacted a number of leagues," Chang said. "And it seems that's a place where it seems that they open up their spots with open arms. And really show strong interest in establishing this exchange … and it just keeps going every year."

Now that the seed was planted, it was just a matter of what type of Taiwanese players would be the first to make the move to Alaska.

"Well, you know, we didn't really set any criteria," Mattingly said. "I just told (Chang), 'Look, if you send me guys that aren't good—they're not gonna get to play. And it's going to be a long summer, and they're not going to like their experience playing in America and playing with American kids.'"

Fortunately for both sides, righthander Sung-Wei Tseng and shortstop Shen-Wei Wang did more than enough to disprove any opinions that Taiwanese players couldn't cut it in Alaska.

A Professional Attitude

You can't blame Tseng and Wang for being a little intimidated when they initially arrived in Anchorage. After all they were about 5,000 miles from home in a country that speaks a foreign language.

"I had only been in the USA for two months, so it was tough just getting comfortable," Tseng said through translator Chao-Kuan Wu. "My English wasn't good at all at that time, but the people in the league made me feel welcome."

And once that happened, they began to absorb the aspects of American baseball, while sharing some of their own habits as well.

One of the differences between Tseng and Wang and the American college players, Mattingly observed, was attitude. After spending their whole lives playing in Taiwan, Tseng and Wang carried themselves in a relaxed, laid-back manner—a stark contrast from the competitive atmosphere in Alaska. But just like their initial timidness, those feelings eroded and they left knowing how to get up for each game. When they returned to their team in Taiwan, their coach told Mattingly "they had the American toughness in them."

Tseng and Wang weren't the only ones growing, though. Their American teammates also learned how to work and conduct themselves professionally. Tseng and Wang had a specific routine for everything. On days where Tseng wasn't befuddling opposing batters, he was going through various drills, working on improving his game. And when the Americans saw what they were doing, they started to work too.

"They brought a little bit of spunk to the table," said Mattingly of Tseng and Wang. "Got our guys off their butts, and got them to do something. You have so many of these American kids in college here that just everything is handed to them—they don't have to work for nothing."

Add the fact that Tseng made the all-league team and Wang was one of the league's top fielders, along with Tseng signing a professional contract with the Indians, and the experiment proved a success.

"It definitely helped my career," said Tseng, who spent the first two months of the 2007 season at high Class A Kinston in the Indians system. "There were a lot of good players. It was a good league. It really helped me get ready for playing against some of the best players in the world."

One Step Further

In 2006, two players on one team turned into six players on two as the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks followed the Bucs' lead and picked up four Taiwanese players. Although their players didn't excel in the manner Tseng and Wang did, head coach Ed Cheff, who also coaches NAIA powerhouse Lewis-Clark State, felt it was a worthwhile endeavor. And Cheff said he didn't think the language barrier was a big problem, either.

For the Taiwanese players on the team—two pitchers, an infielder and an outfielder—there was someone in Fairbanks that spoke their dialect to whom they could communicate with when not playing baseball. And at the park, both sides made efforts to bridge the communication gap.

"They would tell us in Chinese the baseball term and we would try to communicate to them English baseball terms," Cheff said. "They would pick up the language some, it wasn't particularly too difficult to communicate with them."

Looking into the future—the Bucs have two more Taiwanese players coming this summer—one can believe that the influx of Taiwanese will continue. The college teams and the national team in Taiwan like their players getting experience and training in America, and the coaches in the U.S. like the global aspects of the exchange.

"(The Chinese-Taipai Baseball Association) saw the positive things that came from this experience," Chang said.

"And they would really like to expand this—sending their top kids to the U.S. summer college teams, and they can get better that way."

AMATEUR ACTS

• Play was scheduled to begin in the Cape Cod League the same day as the College World Series, but the Cape already made an impact in 2007. Seven Cape alumni—including overall picks No. 4 (Daniel Moskos) through No. 7 (Matt LaPorta)—were first-round picks in June, especially impressive considering just 13 college players went in the first round.

• There's a new face calling the shots in the dugout for the Alaska League's Goldpanners this summer. Ed Cheff, who coached the Goldpanners each of the past five seasons, decided not to return to Alaska this summer, and has been replaced by Tim Gloyd. To go along with his unparalleled success at Lewis-Clark State (Idaho), where he's won 15 NAIA titles, Cheff was one of the most successful coaches during his five-year stint in Alaska. Cheff was named ABL coach of the year three times while leading his squads to first place finishes in those three seasons—2002, 2003 and 2005. Cheff ended his Alaska career with a 20-22 campaign in 2006 to bring his career record in the league to 163-90.

• The first edition of "Northwoods Baseball Weekly" debuted June 7 on ESPNU. The show, billed for an 11-week run on Thursdays this summer, promises a behind-the-scenes look at Northwoods League baseball, from the perspectives of players and those who run the franchises. Each episode will be based in a different league city, as the first episode was filmed in Madison, Wis., during the first two days of the season. ESPNU also will broadcast three Northwoods League games this summer—two regular-season contests and the July 11 All-Star Game.