TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Baseball in Taiwan used to be all about Little League. Now it's big league.
A team of stars from Major League Baseball descended on this island off the coast of China on Sunday and was welcomed by joyous fans eager to take in the five games of the 2011 Taiwan All-Star Series. Turns out the players were also reminded of how far Taiwan has come in the progression of the Grand Old Game around the world.
"Baseball has been very, very important to Taiwan," MLB Asia vice president Jim Small said, "and Taiwan has been very important to Major League Baseball."
In other words, it's come a long way since March 1906, when the first official game was played in Taipei City, and since 1931, when the Chiayi School of Agriculture and Forestry team from the southern part of the country defeated a club from northern Taiwan, thereby expanding baseball to all parts of the island and qualifying for a tournament that would end with the Taiwanese team placing second in a field of over 600 teams from Japan. Taiwan was a baseball power for good.
That carried over into Little League, where Taiwan became a dominant force, winning 17 Little League World Series crowns from 1969-96, and pro ball wasn't far behind.
Taiwan won a bronze medal in baseball at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and took silver in Barcelona in 1992. That success led to the creation of the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) in 1989, which led to the later creation of the Taiwan Major League (TML).
It's been a gradual climb since. Taiwan hosted the 2001 IBAF Baseball World Cup and took bronze, and the viability of that tournament sparked a merger between the CPBL, TML and Naluman Corporation in 2003 that led to one governing body for the sport on the island.
In 2002, the Majors saw its first Taiwanese player when slugger Chen Chin-Feng signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it's continued with the big league appearances of Fu-Te Ni, Hong Chih Kuo, and the most accomplished Taiwan native to ever lace up spikes: Washington Nationals pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, who posted 19-win sesaons for the Yankees in '06 and '07.
Wang has faced a long list of arm injuries since then, but he finished up last year strong and should be a factor in the Nats' rotation in 2012. First, however, he'll toe the slab for the Chinese Taipei team against some of his old MLB buddies, including Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, who said he'll be happy to play against the man he was originally called up with to the Majors in 2005.
"He was a great teammate," Cano said. "He was a great player, but he was a better person. It's good to see him back again on the field and healthy. I hope he continues to stay healthy, because if he stays healthy, I know he can put up some good numbers."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.