Its image severely tarnished by a series of game-fixing scandals over the past 15 years, the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) is hoping for a rebirth this year with an infusion of players who have performed professionally overseas.
Hu Chin-lung, Kao Kuo-hui and Chen Hung-wen, who played at the minor league level in the US, are among 10 Taiwanese players with experience abroad who will join the CPBL this season.
Infielder Hu, 29, who has spent most of the past 10 years bouncing between the major leagues and Triple-A, was drafted first overall in the CPBL draft by the E-Da Rhinos. The 27-year-old Kao, who played in the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system for six years, also joined the Rhinos, the new name for the team that finished last in the CPBL last year, the Sinon Bulls.
Pitcher Chen, 27, who played in the minor leagues from 2007 to 2011 and reached Triple-A in 2010 and 2011, was picked by the Brother Elephants.
Hu said he hoped to use the experience he gained in the US to bring a new mindset to the league, “using more exciting games to change the baseball vibe in the country.”
Su Tai-an, general manager of the Uni-President Lions said at the beginning of spring training last month that “the league is now full of positive energy.”
Bullish about the league’s future, Su quoted English writer Charles Dickens and described the upcoming season as “the best of times and the worst of times.”
The four-team CPBL was on the verge of disbanding late last year, when the Sinon Group announced in late October its plan to sell the Bulls because of mounting financial losses. Had a buyer not been found, the league, left with only three franchises, would have collapsed. However, the E-United Group, which has manufacturing, education, health care and real estate interests, came to the rescue in December by purchasing the club.
However, group chairman Lin Yi-shou made it clear that he would disband the team if it is found to have fixed games. The Rhinos have hired security guards to accompany players during training sessions and games, and the Lions work closely with prosecutors to counter pressure from gambling rings to fix games.
In its heyday in the early 1990s, the CPBL averaged crowds of well over 5,000 fans a game, but attendances plummeted after the first round of game-fixing scandals in the mid-1990s to below 2,000 per game. Attendances averaged 3,000 in 2011 and 2,433 last year, according to the CPBL.
The league is hoping that the infusion of players with name recognition can help it regain momentum, but its management recognizes that fans will have little tolerance for another scandal.
Hung Rei-ho, owner of the Elephants, told his players to be very careful in making friends and to never “hurt the fans’ hearts again.”