Earlier this year, Manny Ramirez signed with the EDA Rhinos of the Chinese Professional Baseball League. It’s been several years since Ramirez was a relevant name in baseball. After finally wearing out his welcome in Boston — and winning two World Series during that stint — Ramirez took over Los Angeles when he was traded to the Dodgers. His at-bats were appointment viewing, not because he was chasing a home run record like McGwire, Sosa or Bonds back in the day, but because “Manny being Manny” was one of the experiences in sports that you didn’t want to hear about secondhand. You needed to either be there or be able to say that you experienced it.
After a 50-game suspension due to a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs in May 2009, things started to spiral downwards for Manny. There were reports that he tested positive while with the Red Sox. He was on and off the disabled list for a large portion of 2010, then spent time with the White Sox, Rays and Athletics organizations before taking his talents to Taiwan.
The question more interesting than why Manny is in Taiwan (self-explanatory: He can’t find another job in the bigs at the moment, or maybe ever) is really: What is this Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) that he decided to join?
Kevin Lai of Hardball Times has a very thorough dissection on the history of baseball in Taiwan. The driving force behind establishing a pro league in Taiwan was a man named Hung Teng-sheng, chairman of the Brother Hotel and referred to many as the “father of the CPBL.” Teng-sheng founded his own team in 1984, the Brother Hotel baseball team, an amateur team that paid its players professional-level wages. To grow both his team and the game of baseball in Taiwan, Teng-sheng took out ads in the local newspapers with the hopes of attracting players to his team. The ads had the following messages: “We’re going to build a stadium in three years and organize a baseball league in five years.”
At the time, it seemed like a far-fetched idea. But on March 17, 1990, the Brother Elephants threw out the first pitch to officially start the first season of the CPBL. The original league consisted of just four teams.
The league prospered for the first half of the decade, but then a dark shadow fell upon the league because of a series of gambling scandals. In 1997, all but two players on the Chinese Times Eagles were found to have fixed games. The entire team, save for the few players who weren’t involved, were bought off by the local mob. A year earlier, four players from the Brothers Elephant team were abducted and held at gunpoint. It was believed that the kidnappers were part of a syndicate that had just lost up to six figures on a game involving the Elephants.
Once the integrity of a game is breached, it’s hard to get the fan base back. If you think strikes and lockouts in North American sports are bad, this was tenfold. Attendance dipped, and another league — The Taiwan Major League — was founded.
The two leagues merged in 2003, and while more scandal rocked the league after that and teams have since gone defunct, today, the CPBL is just like it was when it started, a four-team league consisting of Manny’s EDA Rhinos, the Brother Elephants, Lamigo Monkeys and Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions.
So yes, the fans might confuse Ramirez for Johnny Cueto, but more importantly, the game where Manny hit his first home run for the Rhinos was also a game where the team set a record for single-game attendance for a regular-season game.
It’s a slugger who’s looking for another shot at the big leagues, a league looking for a shot in the arm, and for however long this relationship lasts, Manny and Taiwanese baseball might just find themselves beneficiaries of one another.
I write about sports in my spare time, which is all the time. I try to get the Popeyes three piece for $3.99 daily deal on Thursdays even if my fiancee’s cooking dinner at home. I’m looking for a Michael Dickerson Vancouver Grizzlies jersey so if you have one, let’s be soulmates.