To anyone who frequents the Tianmu Baseball Stadium in Taipei, Yen Ching-hsiu (嚴慶秀), a veteran groundskeeper and now a volunteer at the ballpark, is a familiar figure.
Affectionately known to players, coaches, managers and ballpark crew as “Uncle Yen,” Yen has worked at the ballpark for nearly four decades.
“I can get autographed baseballs from any player I come across,” he said.
Yen said that when Taiwanese-Japanese baseball legend Sadaharu Oh (王貞治) came to Taipei, Oh was not willing to sign autographs.
However, when Yen approached Oh, he was friendly and signed a baseball for him, Yen said.
At the moment, the hottest baseball name in Taiwan is Manny Ramirez, the former slugger and World Series winner with the Boston Red Sox, who now plays for the Greater Kaohisung-based EDA Rhinos.
“I got Manny to sign a few baseballs. My friends requested it, and I still need Manny to sign four more,” Yen said.
Yen said he kept one ball autographed by Ramirez at home, next to a ball signed by Wang Chien-ming (王建民), the Taiwanese pitcher who had two 19-win seasons with the New York Yankees in 2006 and 2007.
In 2011, the first IBAF 12U (under-12) Baseball World Championship was held in Taipei, with Taiwan’s national squad keeping the title in the country.
The whole team, including its star players Tseng Wei-en (曾偉恩) and Chen Tzu-yang (陳子揚), signed a baseball as a gift for “Grandfather Yen.”
Yen said he has a collection of more than 100 autographed baseballs.
Each one marks a point in the history of Taiwan’s baseball development.
However, a major incident occured when he lent out the autographed balls to the Taipei City Government for an exhibition in 2007.
“After the event, they returned the collection to me. However, eight balls had gone missing, including the ones signed by [former president] Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), [President] Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), and [former star pitcher for the Weichuan Dragons] Huang Ping-yang (黃平洋),” Yen said.
Yen said he wished that all players would sign autographs for fans.
“I always told players that when a fan asks you to sign, you should do it,” he said, comparing autographed balls to planting seeds. “When fans see the ball with your name on it, they will think of you. This is good for the player and good for the game.”
“Some players don’t like to hand out autographs. That is wrong. Fans appreciate their game skills, not because the players are handsome guys. So the players should appreciate the opportunity to sign autographs for fans,” he said.
Yen said that he once saw a star pitcher toss a bouquet of flowers presented to him by a female fan into the trash bin.
“When the girl saw it, she started to cry. I gave that player a good scolding for his behavior,” he said, adding that he did so because he knew that without fan support, professional baseball could not survive in the country.
Recalling another incident, he said that the ballpark’s toilets once broke down and an elderly fan got so angry that he threw some excrement toward Yen.
Yen said he did not get angry, but instead apologized to the elderly man and explained that the toilet problem had been reported to management and that he was sorry for the trouble it had caused.
“The next day, the man’s daughter drove by the ballpark and gave me a basket of fruit. She wanted to apologize for her father’s outburst. That was a memorable incident,” Yen said.