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Olympic baseball raises Taiwan's profile

Aug. 06, 2008, 7:18 a.m. (ET)

TAICHUNG, Taiwan(AP) Clapping rhythmically and shouting encouragement, thousands of Taiwanese fans rise to their feet in Taichung's Intercontinental Stadium as the island's beloved Olympic baseball team charges onto a sun-dappled field. Cheerleaders - their bare midriffs tattooed with the Chinese characters for ``home run'' - encourage the crowd from near the Olympians' dugout.

Welcome to Taiwan's bid to turn the corner on international invisibility.

On an island deprived of membership in all but a handful of world organizations and treated as a pariah in capitals around the globe, Olympic baseball is a rare ticket to big-time legitimacy.

When the squad arrives in Beijing on Sunday, it will be competing head to head with national teams from the United States, Japan, Cuba and four other countries. All deny Taiwan diplomatic recognition, reflecting China's insistence that the island of 23 million people is an integral part of its own territory.

Among those opponents is China itself. Ever since the mainland and Taiwan split amid civil war nearly 60 years ago, Beijing has been using its rapidly growing political and economic muscle to isolate Taiwan on the world stage.

In 1971, it succeeded in prompting Taiwan's expulsion from the United Nations, and since then, has managed to whittle down its stable of nearly 70 diplomatic partners to a mere 23 - mostly small and impoverished countries in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific.

It has even stripped the island of the ability to compete in the Olympics under its official name of ``Republic of China,'' saddling it instead with ``Chinese Taipei'' - a moniker that doesn't connote nationhood.

Now, Taiwanese baseball fans say, it's time to get their own back - if only temporarily.

``The Olympics give us international exposure when we need it most,'' says 37-year-old doctoral student Cheng Jen-wen, an enthusiastic backer of the Taiwanese team. ``It helps to bolster our national identity.''

Many of the Taiwanese players agree.

``The Olympics are a very big opportunity for us,'' says 19-year-old Kuo Yen-wen, who plays second base in a Florida-based rookie league as a prospect for Major League Baseball's Cincinnati Reds. ``It's a wonderful chance to represent our country.''

Outfielder Lo Kuo-hui, 23, who plays for a Single-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, says the importance of baseball in Taiwan means added pressure for them in Beijing.

Smiling hopefully as a teammate hits a batting practice pitch well over the left-field wall, he says he's not concerned.

``Sometimes pressure is a good thing,'' he says. ``It can help you to play better.''

That would certainly be a boon for Taiwan, which finished fifth at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. It was a big disappointment, particularly after a silver medal in Barcelona in 1992.

Roger Cheng, who directed a film on Taiwanese baseball for the U.S.-based Discovery Channel, said this year's 24-member team remains the heart of Taiwan's Olympic squad, even though its athletes in taekwondo and archery stand a better chance of winning medals.

Cheng says baseball has been Taiwan's leading sport since at least 1969, when a Taiwanese squad won the Little League World Series in the United States.

That came some 60 years after colonial master Japan first introduced baseball to the island, mainly as a recreational activity for its resident administrators. The Taiwanese themselves took up the sport in the 1920s.

Cheng said that this year's challenge for Taiwan at the Olympics is to use its superior speed and fielding to carry its pitching.

Taiwan's current baseball hero is New York Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, but he - like all major leaguers - won't be playing in the Olympics. Instead, the strongest teams - including Cuba, the United States and Japan - are well-stocked with minor leaguers from Triple-A and Double-A, just short of major league standards. Taiwan mainly makes do with those players a notch or two below that.

Kuo, the Reds prospect, says he's not concerned by the apparent gap in talent. ``Sure, Japan and the U.S. are good teams,'' he concedes. ``But I think our chances are really just as good as anybody else's.''