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Taiwan's baseball Olympians carry hopes to China

Aug. 06, 2008, 3:52 a.m. (ET)

TAICHUNG, Taiwan(AP) Clapping rhythmically and shouting their encouragement, thousands of Taiwanese fans rise to their feet in Taichung's Intercontinental Stadium as the island's beloved Olympic baseball team charges out onto a sun-dappled field.

Perched near the Olympians' dugout, a bevy of scantily clad cheerleaders encourages the crowd, their gyrating midsections neatly tattooed with the Chinese characters for home run.

Welcome to Taiwan's newest bid to turn the corner on a painful case of creeping international invisibility.

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

When the squad arrives in Beijing on Aug. 10, it will be competing head to head with national teams from the United States, Japan among others. All deny Taiwan diplomatic recognition, reflecting China's insistence that the island of 23 million people is an integral part of its own territory.

Conspicuous 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 the Republic of China, saddling it instead with Chinese Taipei - a moniker connoting not nationhood, but associate membership in an amorphous cultural community.

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 with that assessment.

``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 his club baseball for a Class A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, says the importance of baseball in Taiwan is taken for granted by all the Olympians, and means added pressure for them in Beijing.

But smiling hopefully as a muscular teammate smashes 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 the unfancied Taiwanese, who finished fifth at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, a big disappointment for local fans, particularly after Taiwan's silver medal finish 12 years earlier in Barcelona.

Local expert 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 taekwondo and archery practitioners stand a better chance of winning medals for the island.

Cheng says baseball has been Taiwan's leading sport at least since 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 the sport to the island, mainly as a recreational activity for its resident administrators.

Taiwanese themselves took baseball up in the 1920s, and in 1931 a team from the southern city of Chiayi made an unexpected splash at a big tournament in Japan, giving the sport its first island-wide cachet.

Cheng said that this year's challenge for the Taiwanese Olympians is to use their superior speed and fielding skills to make up for their apparent lack of pitching prowess.

That weakness is ironic, because the island's iconic baseball hero is New York Yankees pitcher Wang Chien-ming, who like all major leaguers is prohibited from Olympic competition.

Instead the strongest teams - the U.S., Cuba and Japan among others - are well stocked with minor league triple- and double-A level players - just short of major league standards - while Taiwan mainly makes do with those a notch or two below that.

But Kuo, the Cincinnati prospect playing in Florida, 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.''