“Baseball players fight hard throughout their whole career, hoping for nothing but a glorious retirement sendoff,” Peng Cheng-min (彭政閔) said on Sept. 29, as the Brothers Baseball Club player received his own sendoff.
Also known as “Chia-chia” or Captain Taiwan, the veteran Chinese Professional Baseball League slugger had a 19-year professional career, with many memorable highlights.
During the toughest times Taiwanese baseball faced, Peng held fast to the philosophy of persistence and helped the league to hold on during the dark era of match-fixing scandals. He set an example for young players and this has earned him admiration from baseball fans nationwide.
Yet, every baseball star will eventually arrive at the day they have to bid farewell to the ballpark. Now that Peng has retired, the difficulty of filling his boots has become apparent, a task exacerbated by the nation’s low birthrate, which affects the cultivation of talent and poses great challenges for the sport. The government must take the issue into account and deal with it.
Baseball as a professional sport can be imagined as a pyramid, requiring a strong base of grassroots players to establish a foundation upon which outstanding talent have the chance to emerge and become inspiring figures like Peng.
The birthrate has already affected the number of school baseball teams, and the number who devote themselves to formal baseball training in the next few years might drastically decrease. With the grassroots facing uncertainty, attention must be paid to cultivating professional players.
Taiwan does not lack of outstanding players, many of whom stand out in the junior levels, but it is surprising how often young players leave the sport due to injuries. There are so many student-level baseball competitions today compared with 20 or 30 years ago, but they are doing more harm than good to young players.
According to media reports, a typical student baseball season has almost half the number of games as the professional season, with tournaments at elementary, junior-high and senior-high school level almost every month.
Everyone wants to grab the championship in every tournament, coaches want the win to bolster their records and young players enjoy the sense of achievement. Nobody can blame them for that.
However, the toll on students is high: The more games they play, the more they need to practice; constant travel for tournaments is exhausting; they face the prospect of injuries; and the effect on their education is worrying, as they often miss classes.
In the past, when there was a large player base, injuries were not so much of an issue for the overall development of the sport. Now that the number of players is shrinking due to the low birthrate, the government needs to explore ways to merge competitions and make regulations to address the issues.
The alternative would be to see many budding stars quit the sport because of injuries, while public opinion would remain skeptical regarding a focus on the sport at school, given the limited career choices outside of baseball.
Education authorities should impose a limit upon the number of tournaments a student baseball team can participate in so students can spend more time in the classroom.
This would give young players a chance to recover physically and mentally from a packed schedule and also improve interactions with teachers and peers.
Only one in every 10,000 junior baseball players turns pro. More effective training methods and a healthier competition mechanism need to be established to replace the focus on quantity.
For instance, classes should be taught in a normal manner on weekdays to cultivate reading and problem-solving. Such things not only help young players understand the sport better, but also help them enter other professions.
Experts have proposed learning from Western student sport leagues by setting up criteria of academic performance for young athletes to pass to qualify for competitions. It is time to discuss and implement such regulations.
Education authorities could stipulate that a student must score 70 percent in at least three subjects each semester. Such a stipulation would encourage young players to set goals and explore their interests earlier in their schooling.
Strategies need to be taken up by the government and society to alleviate the impact of the low birthrate. Without a proper education and cultivation mechanism for student sports, parents will be reluctant to encourage their children to play baseball.
Baseball is often dubbed the “national sport,” so efforts to care for players should start with improving systems for grassroots competitions and laying down rules for education.
Everybody wants to see a healthy sport in which emerging stars will always be on hand to pass on the torch, so there will be a long line of Pengs to boost the nation’s spirit.
Charles Yu is an associate professor and head of National Chung Hsing University’s Graduate Institute of Sports and Health Management.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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