Pro baseball begins in Taiwan to empty stadiums
Ariel Miranda threw the first pitch in the first professional baseball game that mattered this year.
He also gave up the first home run - a fastball caught too much of the plate in the second inning - but settled down after the mistake. The former Seattle Mariners left-hander, starting for the Chinese Professional Baseball League's Chinatrust Brothers in Taiwan, allowed just the one run across five innings Sunday and said he felt great on the mound.
It was everything around him that was wonky.
His team was playing a home game at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium, but it didn't seem much like an opening day. The ballpark was empty because the CPBL, the first major professional baseball league in the world to begin its 2020 season, is staging games without fans for the foreseeable future.
"The adrenaline is different," Miranda said in Spanish during a phone interview. "You feel alone."
The CPBL is a five-team league in Taiwan, an island state off the coast of China with a population of nearly 24 million. Baseball is the top sport in Taiwan, which has produced more than a dozen Major League Baseball players.
Founded in 1989, the CPBL has faced game-fixing scandals that forced a franchise to fold in 1998 and the expulsion of another in 2008, but it is the only major professional baseball league up and running amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
Japan's NPB and South Korea's KBO are targeting starts in early May after delays. Major League Baseball, which suspended operations March 12, has discussed various scenarios for the 2020 season, including having all 30 teams play in the Phoenix area, but a plan has not been finalized.
Taiwan has been credited with administering one of the world's best responses to the novel coronavirus. The Central Epidemic Command Center reported just 395 confirmed cases and six deaths since the virus surfaced in December. Authorities reported two new cases Wednesday after reporting none Tuesday. The United States reported 29,465 new cases Wednesday.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the aggressive measures, which included setting up COVID-19 testing at nine facilities by Jan. 24 and swift quarantines, were instrumental in allowing Taiwan to avoid strict lockdown measures. Many schools, restaurants and offices were kept open. Hope for a baseball season, as a result, was kept afloat.
The CPBL regular season was slated to start March 11. It was initially delayed to March 28, then rescheduled for April 11. Rain pushed opening day back another day. The all-star game was canceled, but the league hopes to hold 240 total games through mid-October. Fans are at least temporarily barred, but one club, the Rakuten Monkeys, has placed robots in the stands to cheer them on at home. The league is eyeing allowing 150 fans per game in two months.
"It's very strange," Miranda said. "But that was the step taken and you have to make the adjustments and work with it."
Miranda, 31, is familiar with adapting. He defected from Cuba in 2014 to establish residency in Haiti and signed with the Baltimore Orioles out of the Dominican Republic a year later. He made one appearance with the Orioles and 43 with the Mariners over three years before pitching in Japan the past two seasons.
He signed a one-year, $600,000 contract, plus incentives, with the Chinatrust Brothers in January. A month later, on Valentine's Day, he arrived - scared - in Taiwan. He left his wife and twin 8-year-old sons in Miami when life was normal in Miami. He doesn't know when he will see them again.
"I can't until this is over," Miranda said, "so I can maybe bring my family,"
He didn't know what to expect living in Taichung, a city of nearly 3 million people. He felt better after a conversation with the Brothers' Spanish-language interpreter. He was told if a player in the league tested positive, the season would be suspended indefinitely and potentially canceled. He is confident, though not certain, he would get paid in full regardless.
Miranda said he hasn't been tested for the coronavirus and doesn't know anyone who has been tested since he arrived in Taiwan. But he said stringent precautions are taken around the clock.
Teams are not allowed to stay in hotels on road trips; they make same-day trips for games away from home. Miranda said the longest trip is a three-hour bus ride each way.
Almost every night before he falls asleep, a team trainer knocks on his door to take his temperature. It happened last Saturday. The next morning, Miranda woke up, got dressed and took the elevator to the lobby of his Taichung apartment building, where every member of the Brothers is housed. When he reached the lobby, his temperature was taken again and sanitizer was squeezed into his hands before he could hop on the bus.
Upon arrival, entry to the stadium required another temperature check at the gate and more sanitizer.
"They always do it. Every day," Miranda said. "That's something we have gotten used to."
Miranda, No. 28 in a bright yellow Chinatrust uniform, took the mound with the sun poking out. Rows of empty blue seats served as his backdrop. Four cheerleaders danced on top of the Brothers' dugout without an audience.
In the second inning, outfielder K.W. Cheng led off with a solo home run to left field, giving the Uni-President Lions the lead. Two innings later, Brothers outfielder Tzu Hsien Chan, his walk-up song playing throughout his at-bat, crushed a solo shot off American left-hander Ryan Feierabend to even the score.
The hyped voice of the public address announcer echoed as Chan rounded the bases. Cheers from the Brothers dugout could be heard clearly throughout the park. There was baseball to celebrate, even if fans weren't there to see it.