Dodgers get warm welcome in Taiwan

Dodgers get warm welcome in Taiwan

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Camera flashbulbs lit up the concourse as the Dodgers deplaned their EVA 777 charter Thursday.

From the hundreds of autograph seekers that greeted the team at Taoyuan International Airport to the police escort through rush-hour traffic, to the hundreds who lined the sidewalk in front of The Sherwood Taipei Hotel. From the standing-room-only press conference to the rollicking cocktail reception -- where several players were coaxed into sinagalongs with the band -- there's already a heightened excitement before any of the three games have been played against an All-Star team from the Chinese Professional Baseball League.

"It's the energy," said outfielder Xavier Paul, one of many players who lingered at the party, in contrast to the rapid evacuation he and teammates made from a similar event kicking off the trip to China two years ago. "That welcome at the airport tonight -- that was crazy. When people welcome you like that, it lifts you up."

Manager Joe Torre, outfielder Manny Ramirez and Taiwan natives Hong-Chih Kuo and Chin-lung Hu lead the split squad that will play games in Taipei on Friday night and Saturday afternoon local time. The travel party will take a bullet train Sunday morning to Kaohsiung County for the finale that day before flying back to Arizona immediately following the game.

The last Major League team to visit Taiwan was also the Dodgers, when the entire squad made a trip here and to Japan after the 1993 season. Local fans were treated to a star-studded contingent that included Orel Hershiser, Ramon and Pedro Martinez, Raul Mondesi, Eric Karros and Mike Piazza.

Ticket demand for this series was so intense that the local promoter, Bros Sports Marketing, added a third game, which wiped out a planned day of sightseeing.

There also has been some criticism locally that the Dodgers didn't bring their entire team, despite the obvious complications that would cause during Spring Training. But Joseph Reaves, the Dodgers director of international operations, said that is simply further proof that baseball is already big in Taiwan.

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"You can feel the excitement that wasn't there on the mainland, because China doesn't have the history of baseball Taiwan has," said Reaves. "They've won 17 Little League World Series and they've had two professional leagues. It's a blessing and a curse, because the fans are knowledgeable and there is a frustration we don't have every player on the 40-man roster."

There are, however, 13, including James Loney, Ronnie Belliard, Jamey Carroll and Eric Stults. Stults, who also made the China trip, will be Friday night's starting pitcher, with Josh Towers starting Saturday and Kuo getting the honor from Torre on Sunday in place of Charlie Haeger, who was scratched with a hip injury.

"I'm excited. I'll have a lot of friends and family here," said Kuo, who has requested 75 tickets for each of the three games.

One of the benefits Taiwan baseball hopes to gain from the series is a jumpstart on the cleansing process after the CPBL's fifth gambling scandal in the past 20 years, which league commissioner Shou-Po Chan alluded to in his remarks.

"Right now, baseball in Taiwan is in a very critical stage," Chan said. "We hope these games will help rekindle our people who love and support and have patience for this sport."

Reaves said the Dodgers are hopeful as well.

"We are aware of the gambling history, you cannot ignore it and it's terrible," he said. "But Major League Baseball has managed to have a sport with rabid fans and, with rare exception, avoid those scandals. It can be done. We hope to be an example to the CPBL. Crack down, clean the game and everybody wins, instead of a few gangsters."

Paul Archey, MLB senior vice president of international operations, joined at the press conference by Major League Baseball Players Association chief operating officer Gene Orza, noted that the Dodgers lost two of three on their last visit and "guaranteed" that wouldn't happen again.

"They make promises my bodies have to keep," joked Torre.

In addition to Kuo and Hu, Torre has managed the most famous Taiwanese Major Leaguer, Chien-Mien Wang.

"I've always been curious, knowing that Taiwan won the Little League World Series all the time, so I know baseball is very big here," Torre said. "Taiwanese players I've managed have impressed me, not only because of their ability, but the way they compete. I always judge an athlete, not only on the performance, but how determined [they are] and how well they compete."

Reaves said the biggest hurdle to clear was upgrading Tien Mou Stadium to something Major League worthy.

"Three weeks ago, it was unplayable," he said. "They went in and rebuilt the guts of the stadium. It literally wasn't fit for a junior high school clubhouse. They had to build showers. The field was in horrible shape. The union wouldn't have let the players play on it. There were no batting cages. So, in addition to goodwill and friendship, we'll leave behind a Major League facility."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.