When My “A-Gong” Led “Chinese Taipei” at the “World Baseball Classic”

That’s a ton of quotation marks, isn’t it? I’ll be sure to explain all of them in just a moment. But first … (drum roll) … the 2023 World Baseball Classic has begun! It’s kinda like the World Cup, but for baseball instead of soccer. Like soccer’s grand quadrennial event, the WBC is played every four years (although this year’s edition was a postponement from 2021 due to COVID). And it has the national teams of 20 nations from five continents competing for world bragging rights. It doesn’t have the prestige of the World Cup, but it has a huge following outside the United States, and even within the U.S., interest is growing fast. The first rounds of games will take place in stadia around the world over the next couple of weeks, all leading to the final games in Miami.

Now to explain the abundant quotation marks. “A-Gong” (pronounced “ah-gong”) is what you would call your paternal grandfather in Taiwanese, which is a variant of Mandarin Chinese. I’ve actually written about my A-Gong recently on this blog. He grew up in Taiwan when it was a Japanese colony and spent his teenage and college years in Japan, eventually working there as a teacher in the city of Hiroshima. He returned to Taiwan in 1944, just a year before 80,000 of Hiroshima’s residents, including all of his former students, died in an instant when the first American atomic bomb fell from the skies.

China, Taiwan, and Japan (the group of large islands on the right). (Australian Broadcasting Company image)

Then there’s “Chinese Taipei,” the name under which athletes from Taiwan have competed in international sports for over 40 years. It’s always struck me as an awkward and silly bit of nomenclature. But I understand why international sporting federations have used it; without it, China’s Communist rulers would boycott their events, as they did the 1976 Summer Olympics for that very reason.

The Olympic logo for Chinese Taipei.

Yes, the background behind the use of “Chinese Taipei” is wholly political. China, the country on the mainland of Asia, is formally known as the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan, the country that consists almost entirely of one major island to the southeast, is formally known as the Republic of China. Both nations still officially claim all the lands of China and Taiwan as their own, although the government of Taiwan long ago abandoned any real hope of one day retaking the mainland, which was lost to the Communists in 1949 at the end of a very long civil war. But the ruling clique in China still loudly claims Taiwan, calling it a rogue province, and very much wants to take it over, frequently threatening a military assault against the island democracy of 24 million people. So China’s leaders get upset when any country, corporation, or other major organization calls Taiwan “Taiwan,” because to them, that promotes the idea that Taiwan is a separate country and not the renegade province that rightly belongs under their rule. So we have “Chinese Taipei” in the WBC and the Olympics.

When a country that is the greatest threat to your existence gets to tell you what you can call yourself, and even tell you that you can’t march under your own national flag, it’s international gaslighting, no? I’m just sayin’.

Although it hasn’t had much success in the WBC, Taiwan’s national team has had some good moments. (Sporting News photo)

Now, Taiwan, or excuse me, “Chinese Taipei” isn’t expected to get out of the WBC’s first round, so it’s not likely to play China in this tournament. That would be quite an event, wouldn’t it?

I’ve also put “Chinese Taipei” in quotes because in 1973, the year in which the story of this post takes place, Taiwan’s athletes weren’t yet forced to compete under that moniker. They were still able to compete as the Republic of China. And that brings us to the final phrase in quotation marks.

Guatemalan schoolgirls celebrate the relationship between their country and Taiwan. Only around a dozen nations recognize Taiwan as its own country, Guatemala being the largest. (Presidency of the Republic of China photo)

I’ve put “World Baseball Classic” in quotes because in 1973, it wasn’t called the “World Baseball Classic.” At the time, there were, in fact, two events that were the forerunners of the WBC, each held by a rival international baseball governing organization. There was a smaller one held by the FIBA federation, involving Cuba and several other mostly Latin American countries. A larger competition was run by the FEMBA federation and pitted ten countries from Asia to North America to Europe against one another, including the U.S.

Not surprisingly back then, the Americans ran the table, winning all ten of their games to earn the gold medal. Host country Nicaragua, featuring future All-Star pitcher Dennis Martinez, took second, and Puerto Rico came in third. Tying for fourth was Taiwan.

And this is where my A-Gong comes into the story.

A-Gong loved baseball! At what point he fell in love with the sport, I don’t know. The Imperial Japanese military brought baseball to Taiwan, so I imagine that he first saw it there when he was a kid. Eventually, though, A-Gong became involved with Taiwan’s national team. How that happened, I don’t know, either. It probably helped, and it at least didn’t hurt, to have the political connections he made as the elected head of Taiwan’s Nantou County for two terms in the 1950s and ’60s. Among government leaders that he regularly met were Taiwan’s authoritarian, and often brutally oppressive, president Chiang Kai-shek and his son and future president, Chiang Ching-kuo. So perhaps A-Gong’s relationships opened the door to involvement with Taiwan’s national baseball team.

In any case, by the early 1970s, he was a recognized voice in the sport. Author Junwei Yu, in his 2007 book Playing in Isolation: A History of Baseball in Taiwan, mentions him (page 93):

Hong Qiaorong, a senior member of the Chinese Baseball Committee, audaciously proposed the idea of creating a professional league in the hopes of revitalizing adult baseball when the national team hit rock bottom in the 1971 Asian Championship, even as the Little Leaguers won the world championship at Williamsport.

A pro league in Taiwan wouldn’t come about for more than a decade, because the nation was mostly focused on its Little League baseball teams, winners of numerous Little League World Series titles over the years. But A-Gong was influential enough that when Taiwan’s national team went to play in the U.S.-endorsed FEMBA Amateur World Series in 1973, he was named the head of the delegation. This November 16, 1973 news photo was taken just before the team took a flight from Taiwan to San Francisco, from where they would connect to Managua, Nicaragua.

Nearing 50 years old, A-Gong was neither player nor coach, but he was the public face of the team. There’s also television news footage of the team’s departure for the competition, featuring a reporter interviewing my grandpa, as well as silent video of the team’s return following their fourth-place tie, having demonstrated their progress since the aforementioned disaster at the 1971 Asian Championship. (International restrictions prevent me from posting the videos directly here.) Their final record in the event, according to Baseball Reference, was seven wins and three losses.

A-Gong is interviewed by a Taiwanese news network right before the national team leaves for San Francisco.

Much of A-Gong’s work with Taiwan’s national baseball team I didn’t know about until the last couple of years. But baseball was always something that my grandpa and I bonded over. His English was substantial yet still limited, and my Mandarin was like that, too, so we had difficulty conversing sometimes without someone there to translate for us.

But we both spoke fluently the language of baseball! When he would visit our family in the States, we would take him to Astros games at the Astrodome. Once, when I visited him in Japan as a 5th grader, he took me to see the Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants at their open-air stadium that was later replaced by the Tokyo Dome. He would follow the Astros in his newspapers, and we would chat about how they and the Giants were doing over the phone and also on those rare occasions we could be with each other in person. Baseball helped to bridge the communication gap between A-Gong and me.

My grandparents, who lived in Japan for many years, were convinced that 5th-grade me looked like longtime Tokyo Giants 2nd baseman Kazunori Toshio Shinozuka.
This guy was one of Japanese baseball’s best hitters!
If Shinozuka’s batting stance and follow-through look familiar, it might be because a certain Ichiro Suzuki patterned his leg kick after him.

A-Gong passed away many years ago, but one of my last extended conversations with him took place on the night the Astros won their first pennant, their lone National League championship. (They’ve won several American League championships, and a couple of World Series titles, since then.) On an October evening in 2005, after nearly 30 years as an Astros fan, I finally saw them punch their ticket to a World Series! Almost as soon as the last game in that National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals ended, A-Gong called me from Taiwan, where he had been watching the game on ESPN International. We laughed and celebrated together, and when we hung up, I broke down in tears. My grandpa loved me so much that he was watching my favorite team in its most important game ever, rooting for them because I rooted for them; he was overjoyed at their win because he knew that I would be. It was deeply touching to me.

I’ll be cheering for the USA, of course, but also for the team that my A-Gong once led. 加油, boys! (That’s jiā yóu, which literally means “add oil.”) (World Baseball Softball Confederation photo)

So now as the WBC kicks off, I’ll be rooting for not just the U.S., but passionately for Chinese Taipei, the team A-Gong led to an impressive showing 50 years ago in an older version of the WBC. No one expects the Taiwan national team to do well against the other countries, given the star power other nations are bringing to the event. But what matters most to me is that it’ll be yet another way that baseball makes me feel connected to A-Gong, a feeling I haven’t experienced much since his passing.

A lot of fans say that they love baseball. I do, too. But baseball isn’t just something I love; baseball has helped me to love, and to know, and to appreciate my A-Gong.