TAIPEI - Taiwan's baseball scene came under the international spotlight recently after it became the first professional league in the world to begin a new season amid the coronavirus pandemic, with some 1,000 fans cheering their teams live at a stadium.
"I've been supporting the Fubon Guardians before they were the Guardians," said Ms Chang Yu-fang proudly through a mask, seconds before she leapt out of her seat in New Taipei City's Xinzhuang Baseball Stadium to cheer for a Fubon Guardian batter on Friday (May 8).
Ms Chang, an Eda Rhino fan before the team was acquired by the Fubon Financial Group, was one of the 1,000 baseball fans who scored tickets to attend the first baseball game in the world in 2020 that lets spectators watch from the stands.
The stadium has a full capacity of about 12,000 seats.
The majority of professional sports in the world have either been played behind closed doors in matches that were live-streamed, or were simply cancelled.
"I took a few hours off work to come! And I've got tickets for four games total in May, all on Friday so I leave work early before each game," said Ms Chang, 40, sitting two seats away from her husband to watch her team play against the Uni-President Lions.
Two days before the game, Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) announced that it had approved the request of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) to allow fans into the stadiums while maintaining social distancing.
The CECC made the decision as Taiwan reported its third week of zero locally-transmitted cases, a milestone that CECC commander Chen Shih-chung celebrated by sporting a baseball jersey to the game with the number zero on the back.
Mr Chen, who is also the Health and Welfare Minister, had declined to throw the first pitch, passing the honour instead to Mr Chen Chin-feng, the first Taiwanese player to play in the United States' Major League Baseball.
As the minister stepped onto the field to deliver a speech, fans shouted their support from the stands. "You're doing a good job, minister!" "Thank you, minister!", to which he responded by thanking the Taiwanese people for following regulations to fight the pandemic.
"We've all been waiting for so long," said lawyer Eric Cheng, 37, about being able to watch the game in person. "Of course we hope the day when we can watch baseball in a packed stadium will come soon, but this game today is telling us that life is slowly getting back to normal, so we must be confident in the government."
Players also shared the fans' excitement, as they have been playing for nearly a month with only cut-outs of fans or mannequins in the stands.
"When we play by ourselves, the seats are empty...with the fans I think it'll be more fun," said Fubon Guardians pitcher Henry Sosa on Friday. "It's an opportunity for people to know that baseball in Taiwan is good, like all baseball, so a lot of people watch the game," he added.
The Dominican native shared positive feedback from his friends watching Taiwanese baseball back home: "A lot of my friends tell me that the hitters are good, the pitchers are good."
After Taiwan's national baseball kicked off its season on April 12, the league's games have been gaining more attention globally as it was the first professional league in the world to keep the games going during the pandemic. South Korea and Germany have since joined in, beginning their delayed seasons, playing to empty stadiums.
There are four teams in Taiwan's CPBL, all of which have decided to stream their games with English commentary on Twitter. This resulted in a jump in views, with each game reaching up to millions in views.
This was also reflected in Taiwan's semi-professional basketball scene, with the Super Basketball League (SBL) closing doors to fans for the second half of its season in April. SBL live-streamed its games for fans with commentary by former SBL head coach Chiu Ta-tsung, whose humorous comments drew more viewers than previous seasons.
"His commentary is hilarious and gave people more reason to watch the games during these times," said Mr Liu Hsien-han, a 29-year-old freelancer who is an avid basketball fan and player himself.
Other professional, semi-professional and varsity sports games in Taiwan have been put on pause due to the Covid-19 containment regulations.