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Taiwan Says ‘Play Ball!’ (With Cardboard Fans and Robot Drummers)

TAOYUAN, Taiwan — On a balmy Saturday evening inside one of Taiwan’s largest baseball stadiums, the floodlights flickered to life and the players took their positions.

Cheerleaders began their rah-rah routines. Organ music blared through the speakers.

But as the first batter stepped up to the plate and the pitcher took a deep breath, the only fans inside the 20,000-seat stadium in the northern city of Taoyuan were cardboard cutouts and plastic mannequins.

Some wore hot-pink wigs and surgical masks. Others held signs with this cheery message: “We will always be with you!” A five-member band of robots played drums from the stands — a substitute for the usual cacophony of live music.

“Welcome to the one and only live sports game on the surface of the planet,” an announcer said.

With sports events canceled across much of the world because of the coronavirus pandemic, Taiwan, which has so far kept the outbreak under control, is pushing forward with the rarest of spectacles: a professional baseball season.

Sports officials are adapting the game to the coronavirus age, filling the stands with fake spectators instead of real ones, stocking locker rooms with bottles of sanitizer, and urging players and coaches to keep a distance.

Spitting is prohibited. Chewing sunflower seeds is frowned upon — what would one do with the shells? Players are encouraged to bump elbows rather than give each other high-fives.

Players and coaches say they feel fortunate to be able to host games at all when many cities in the world remain under lockdown.

“We know many people are still keeping their eyes on us, even though there are no fans, said Chiu Chang-Jung, the manager of the CTBC Brothers team, which on Saturday took on the Rakuten Monkeys at the stadium in Taoyuan, about 30 miles west of Taiwan’s capital, Taipei. “Playing these games is a very lucky and blessed thing.”

But the restrictions have sucked some of the life out of the game, giving high-stakes matches the feel of everyday practice.

The noise at the field on Saturday paled in comparison to the typical atmosphere at games in Taiwan, where baseball has been a part of the culture for more than a century, since the days of Japanese colonial rule.

Fans in Taiwan are notoriously rowdy and devoted, pounding clappers, blaring vuvuzelas and availing themselves of any other noise makers they can find from start to finish. Music blasts throughout most games, with cheerleaders leading fast-paced routines atop the dugouts.

The fake fans are meant to ease the players’ sense of loneliness on the field. They are getting mixed reviews.

“At first, everyone felt it was a bit weird,” Chu Yu-Hsien, a player for the Rakuten Monkeys, said of the cardboard cutouts. “But as they grew in number day by day, we started to see it more as an unusual marketing campaign.”

Since the season began last month, fans in Taiwan have found other ways to participate in the game, by watching broadcasts and recording virtual messages of encouragement for their favorite players.

But players and coaches say they miss the adrenaline rush that real crowds provide.

“It just lacks a bit of energy, that kind of excitement of a real game,” said Tseng Hao-Chu, manager of the Rakuten Monkeys.

Mr. Tseng is offering his players “imagination training” in the dugout, urging them to envision fans jumping up and down in front of their televisions at home.

“I’ll tell them: ‘This is your job. Your job is to perform the best for your fans,’” he said. “Maybe they are not here but they are still in front of television and cheering for us.”

The games have become a source of national pride for Taiwan during the pandemic, and a symbol of the island’s success in battling the virus. As of Tuesday, Taiwan, with a population of about 23 million, had reported 438 cases of coronavirus and six deaths, far fewer than many countries of similar size. With new infections now near zero, officials in Taiwan say they might soon open up baseball games to a maximum of 250 fans at a time.

Viewership of online broadcasts has surged, and sports commentators around the world, with little other material to work with, have started featuring baseball games from Taiwan.

John Foster, a former pitcher for the Atlanta Braves who is now a coach for the CTBC Brothers, said many people outside Taiwan had never heard of its league, the Chinese Professional Baseball League, before the pandemic. Now, he said, even ESPN is showing highlights from the games, and his American friends are jealous that the Taiwan teams are able to play.

“It adds intensity for me,” Mr. Foster said, “because I know we’re the only ones in the world.”

The Taiwan league will soon have company: South Korea is set to start its regular baseball season this week.

The measures to fight the virus have upended the game day routine. Players must submit to temperature checks several times a day, and they are banned from eating at restaurants, which are still open in Taiwan, for fear that they might be exposed to the virus.

Chou Szu-Chi, an outfielder for the CTBC Brothers, said the rules were necessary to ensure the games could continue.

“We are changing some old habits,” said Mr. Chou, who is president of the players’ association. “The culture has shifted.”

Some traditions have not changed. On Saturday, players from both teams celebrated home runs with high fives to teammates in the dugout.

In the stands, though, home run balls bounce aimlessly with no fans to catch or fight over them. The concession stands sit idle beneath signs for fried dumplings and strawberry ice cream.

Cheerleaders — all women, with a male coach — have more down time now, which they use to interact with fans on livestreaming platforms.

On Saturday, Ni Shiuan, a cheerleader for the Rakuten Monkeys, hosted a live broadcast as she barbecued meat in the stands, dangling each piece for viewers to see. “We care about the pandemic so we try to bring positive energy to the world through our cheers,” Ms. Ni said.

As the game reached its conclusion, with the Rakuten Monkeys beating the CTBC Brothers 16-11, their 1,000th victory in league history, a few fans gathered on the sidewalk outside the stadium to celebrate, across from signs reminding the public that no visitors were allowed inside.

They raised their fists, adjusted their surgical masks and shouted, “Go Monkeys!” And then: “Go Taiwan!”

Wen-Yee Lee contributed reporting.

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