He is entering his third season with the Uni-President Lions of Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) — and the pandemic even stretched Roenicke’s love for baseball. He returned to Taiwan at the end of March, after a brief trip home to Florida for the birth of his daughter Dylan. But before he could rejoin the Lions at spring training, Roenicke was required to complete two weeks in isolation.
“It was a 12-by-20 room, probably. Two beds. … There was a little stool set out of each room where they bring a meal three times a day, and you open the door and grab it. Then you leave your trash out there twice a day. You couldn’t even go in the hallway,” Roenicke says of his Spartan existence.
“So there I was, 15 days with just a window [that opened only] a small crack. I flipped one of the beds up against the wall so I could do my workouts every other day and throw the baseball into the mattress or bedspread.”
Being a foreign player in Taiwan already took some major adjustments, but adding a pandemic has made life border on the bizarre. All players have their temperatures checked at least twice a day — at the ballpark and team hotels.
Games are played in empty stadiums, in front of mannequins. Some especially zealous fans are reportedly spending $5,500 Taiwan dollars (about $185 US) to affix photos of their faces to cardboard placards in the stands, creating silhouettes in camera shots behind both batter’s boxes and down the foul lines. Coupled with eerie silence from empty stands, the setting is both serene and surreal.
“It’s very quiet,” Roenicke says. “You hear everything. You hear chatter from the other team. You hear your own teammates dropping F-bombs when they mess up. You hear coaches talking from the dugout.”
The early measures taken by Taiwan’s government helped the island country of 23 million largely keep the virus’ damage to a minimum. Located a mere 110 miles from the coast of mainland China, Taiwan’s number of coronavirus cases is very low, with just 429 reported cases and six deaths as of April 29, according to the World Health Organization.
Taiwan is enjoying the benefits of that labor and vigilance. The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) begins play on May 5. But when it opened its season on April 12, Taiwan’s league was the only professional baseball in the world being played.
An opportunity for Taiwan?
With virtually the rest of the sports world shut down, the CPBL has been the figurative “only game in town.” Its unique position shined a spotlight on the five-team league (four teams plus one minor league team). And the teams are eager to showcase themselves.
“Overall, playing behind closed doors definitely takes a big toll on the club and is not sustainable, as we lose huge revenues that would have come from ticketing, sponsorships and merchandising,” says Chris Tsai, general manager of the Fubon Guardians.
“However, in the short run, it is not without opportunities. Being the first and only professional baseball league that has opened the season, we have attracted viewers around the world to tune in to our games,” Tsai says.
The league, which launched in 1990, has seen its ups and downs. However, the country has long tradition of valuing baseball, as its Little League World Series success (.910 all-time winning percentage) attests. It remains, like Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league and South Korea’s KBO, viable options for ex-major leaguers to either extend their playing careers or to offer a possible path back to MLB. Current major leaguers Miles Mikolas, Eric Thames and Josh Lindblom are examples of players who have used these leagues to jump-start their careers.
And while Japan and South Korea have strong player pipelines to MLB, Roenicke thinks Taiwan has some real talent as well.
“There are some really good hitters in this league and in every way — hand-eye coordination, recognizing pitches, their swings, their power — I’d say a lot of hitters here could play in AAA,” Roenicke says.
“But almost every single [foreign signee] here is a pitcher, to bring over better arms from the United States or Latin America.”
Chi-Feng Chen was the first Taiwanese player in MLB when he played briefly the Dodgers in the early 2000s. However, it was former Yankees star pitcher Chien-Ming Wang who achieved stardom in both the Bronx and at home and really put Taiwan on the major league map.
There are a handful of Taiwanese players in the majors right now, including infielder Yu Chang of the Cleveland Indians and pitcher Wei-Yin Chen, who has won 59 big league games and was on the Seattle Mariners‘ roster entering spring training in February.
Former major leaguer Rob Ducey played 13 seasons on six teams and currently serves as the hitting coach for the Fubon Guardians. Ducey is excited about the opportunity the CPBL has to fill the global void left by MLB’s shutdown.
“I think for the awareness of Taiwan and this league — we have an opportunity to show the American and Canadian people [and fans around the world] what we’re all about,” Ducey says.
For Roenicke, baseball is in his blood. Members of his family include father Gary, who won a World Series with the 1983 Baltimore Orioles. His uncle Ron is the Boston Red Sox manager, and Josh’s brother in-law is Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond.
“I know he’s liked it there. He’s pitched really well. But it’s rough on family life,” Ron Roenicke says. “It’s so far away and trying to get his wife and kids over there is probably his biggest struggle. But he wants to keep playing.”
Josh Roenicke, 37, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013, when he went 3-1 with the Minnesota Twins.
“[I bounced around with] four different teams in the big leagues in six years,” he says. “I was never like one of their ‘guys,’ which can be hard sometimes to fit in and become someone they really want to keep around.”
When the MLB job line stopped ringing, Roenicke spent some time in a pro league in Mexico before catching on in Taiwan. He says he wishes his time in the majors lasted just a bit longer, but now he’s happy he’s still in the game.
“Someone’s paying me to play the game that I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old,” Roenicke says. “We’re super fortunate, especially with what’s going on right now [in the U.S.]. I’ve been thinking about that a lot [here in Taiwan], and to keep getting paid to play this game is in itself amazing.”
Despite some missed time last season due to an abdominal strain, Roenicke has compiled an 17-16 record and a ERA of 3.31 in his two seasons with the Lions.
Roenicke is part of a Lions staff that includes fellow ex-major league hurlers Donn Roach and Ryan Feierabend. Esmil Rogers, formerly of the Yankees, pitches for Taichung City’s ChinaTrust Brothers. Justin Nicolino, who pitched three years for the Miami Marlins, is playing for the Rakuten Monkeys in Taoyuan City.
“It is definitely a rare opportunity for the world to learn more about Taiwanese baseball,” Tsai says. “We are happy to be able to bring joy to sports fans and offer a sense of hope and encouragement during this tough time.”
Roenicke originally left his Florida home to join the Lions in Taiwan on Jan. 29. Widespread news of the virus was just starting to hit the U.S. Despite his rising concerns, Roenicke says when he landed in Taiwan, life was fairly normal.
“At that point, we weren’t too sure what it was,” he says. “I got [to Taiwan] and it was not relevant at all. Then it got worse and worse in other countries, and the U.S. and just kept skyrocketing. Yet, Taiwan still wasn’t really affected by it. So [being in] Taiwan was definitely safe, but it was scary to think about family and friends back home.”
Taiwan had learned hard lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2003, during which 150,000 people were quarantined and 181 people died. According to a report in the Journal of American Medical Association, Taiwan instituted a list of 124 measures to protect its citizenry during the current pandemic, including a strict quarantine and banning travel from China very early. They started inspecting flights from Wuhan, China — where cases of COVID-19 first appeared — as early as Dec. 31.
Likewise, Taiwan’s baseball league took measures to protect its personnel and players.
“In our efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we took precautions early on and enforced many regulations and practices for our team, such as daily body temperature checks, canceling buffet-style catering, setting hand-sanitizing and hand-washing guidelines, following shelter-in-place orders, prohibiting close contact with fans, and declining all public event invitations,” Tsai says.
This also included the elimination of some time-honored baseball traditions.
“Players were told, ‘Be cautious with your hands and touching. No spitting, no sunflower seeds,'” Roenicke says. “They banned those because they don’t want people spitting, you know, saliva being on the ground. No dipping [tobacco].”
In mid-March, when Roenicke flew home to Florida, the virus was beginning to spread rapidly in the U.S. His team was not thrilled by the trip, but it was guaranteed in his contract. He missed his third daughter’s birth while playing in Mexico and wasn’t going to let it happen again.
“I wanted to get there before things really took a turn for the worse [in the U.S.],” Roenicke says. “So I got home with plenty of time. I was there for about eight or nine days before the baby came, and it was a lot of downtime in the quarantine.”
When Roenicke said he was going back to Taiwan, not everyone in his family understood. He even questioned his own decision.
“When I was leaving, I know a lot of people were worried,” Roenicke says. “I was like, I kind of have to go, but in the back of my mind I was thinking the same as them — [Taiwan] is as close to Wuhan as anything.”
Roenicke arrived in Taiwan to resume spring training, and by then the country had upped its COVID-19 enforcement policies and the team told him he would have to be in a strictly monitored two-week quarantine.
“At first they told me I could stay in my apartment,” he says. “Perfect. All my stuff was there. It’s a two-bedroom apartment that won’t be so bad and I’ll have my teammates, I can go on the balcony. An hour later they said, ‘Never mind, there’s a special quarantine hotel in Kaohsiung. It’s an hour south of where we are and you’ll just stay there now.'”
After two weeks throwing against a mattress, Roenicke knew exactly what he wanted.
“The first place I went to — of course I walked to Starbucks,” Roenicke says. “Honestly, just to walk outside felt a little weird because I had not walked further than 5 feet in 15 days.”
Unable to get his regular spring work in during quarantine, Roenicke was given more time to train before his first start of the season. He’s looking forward to taking the mound and starting a game for the Lions soon. That’s when “normal” sets in for a ballplayer.
“[It’s great] when you hear those noises that people appreciate — the crack of the bat, the glove popping, the sound of wooden bats hitting balls,” Roenicke says.
And for his uncle Ron, Taiwan and the subsequent opening of the KBO offer a glimpse into what MLB might be facing or look like. But obstacles and safety concerns remain.
“I was really happy to see [the leagues open]. But I mean, it’s not like I’m sitting here saying, ‘They’re opening up there, why can’t we?’ Because I know we still have a ways to go,” Ron says.
“We expect it will take some time to get back to the good old days,” Tsai says. “Even if the games are open to the public, it might come with many restrictions and guidelines to follow, such as requiring all to wear face masks, keeping a certain social distance in the stands, checking body temperatures, and collecting personal information at the gates. Until a vaccine or a cure has been developed, it is inevitable that we will have to do our best to prevent the resurgence of COVID-19 ourselves.”
The lockdown has given Josh a greater sense of purpose in the game he was raised to play. For the time being, his family, as well as legions of fans 8,500 miles away, are unable to play, watch or cheer for baseball.
“It was so dangerous for a time [in the U.S], I don’t know if people were concerned that baseball’s not going on,” Roenicke says. “It was more about being safe, especially for the elderly. But hopefully seeing baseball being played out here [in Taiwan] can bring a little hope and take a little anxiety away from people and bring that joy back.”