Asheville’s newest millionaire

He’s 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighs 178 pounds, sports a broad smile, and wields a handshake that could crush rock. But don’t even think about trying to return Tsao Chin-hui’s crunch grip. His right hand is attached to a million-dollar arm — a $2.2 million arm, to be exact.

At least that’s what the brain trust at baseball’s Colorado Rockies (the major-league parent organization of the Asheville Tourists) believes. They bestowed a $2.2 million signing bonus — the largest in franchise history — upon the owner of that arm. Chin-hui is a 19-year-old pitching sensation from Taiwan. Luckily for local baseball fans, he has begun his long climb up professional baseball’s minor-league ladder as an Asheville Tourist. And, having traveled thousands of miles to get here, this Tourist is enjoying his stay.

Chin-hui boasts an impressive resume. At age 18, he was selected for the Chinese Taipei national team, the lone amateur on a squad of seasoned professionals. He has represented his country in international tournaments in Korea, Canada and Japan — racking up statistics that left baseball scouts drooling. A bidding war ensued between such storied teams as the Atlanta Braves, the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tokyo Giants, all of them offering the young hurler seven-figure signing bonuses. One theme ran through all the scouting reports: Chin-hui has pure athletic ability and unquestionable baseball talent, combined with maturity, intelligence and a calm demeanor. Needless to say, a pitcher with these qualities is infinitely more appealing than a guy with a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head (does the name John Rocker ring any bells?).

Chin-hui’s services, though, did not go to the highest bidder. Instead, he signed with the struggling Colorado Rockies — a team he felt could provide the quickest route to the big leagues. The Rockies need pitchers, and they hope Chin-hui will one day anchor their bullpen. Talent-rich teams like the Yankees may boast multiple World Series rings, but cracking their starting rotationis about as tough as busting into Fort Knox. In baseball, there are no guarantees — not even for million-dollar recruits. Every player must still try out for the team in spring training, and younger players must prove themselves on the club’s developmental or “farm” teams (such as the Asheville Tourists) before they can play for the flagship team. Most never get there, including many high-ticket bonus babies.

After signing Chin-hui, the club knew they would have to ease his transition to American baseball and culture — not to mention overcoming a huge language barrier. For the latter, they hired Alex Gong as his full-time interpreter. The rest would be left up to a friendly little city with the highest mountains east of the Rockies.

“I love it here. The climate is great for baseball, and all the people are so friendly,” Chin-hui said (through Alex) in a recent interview at McCormick Field. The English language is not the only thing that’s new to Chin-hui. “In my country, I was never really exposed to black people, and getting to meet African-Americans has been a wonderful experience. They are so kind,” he noted.

As for socializing in Asheville, Chin-hui is a man with limited idle time. “I try to stay focused on baseball. It is very important to me,” he pointed out. “We are often on the road. The bus trips can be long and tiring, and when we’re home, we’re here working out.” But a guy has to eat, and Chin-hui deftly handled a question about which restaurants he frequents. “I’ve been to three Chinese restaurants, and I like two of them very much.” Ever the diplomat, he wouldn’t divulge the names, but he added, “I like Applebee’s.”

For the average American, exposure to baseball players from Taiwan has come through the Little League World Series. Every year, we watch teams from Taiwan wallop our homegrown talent in the only true “world series.” That phenomenon begs the questions: At age 14, why are the players from Taiwan so dominant? And why don’t we see more Taiwanese players in major league baseball? Chin-hui explained it this way: “In Taiwan, players are taught all the pitches — including off-speed pitches — at a young age, and this is sometimes bad for their developing arms. Players here are limited to one or two pitches until they are older and more developed. Also, the teaching of baseball is different. In the United States, the emphasis is on having fun, and there is good communication between players and coaches. In Taiwan, a player must listen to the coach — even if the coach is not that good — and that can affect the whole team.”

According to Chris Smith, the assistant general manager of the Asheville Tourists, Chin-hui has a solid command of four different pitches. “His fastball had been clocked at 96 mph — and what’s astounding is, it seems to pick up speed late in the game. When he should be getting tired, he actually seems to be just getting warmed up.”

Try starting a new career in a distant country with a totally foreign language and culture. Add the pressure of knowing that, back home, your development is being tracked by legions of fans. In Taiwan, Chin-hui is not just a celebrity — he’s a national hero. When he made his professional debut in a Rockies/Mariners spring-training game in Arizona, the game was broadcast live in Taiwan. When he pitches in Asheville, a free-lance cameraman transmits highlights to a Taiwanese news agency in New York City, which then beams them to Taiwan — where a Chin-hui-hungry public clamors for the latest update. Meanwhile, here in the states, baseball prognosticators are predicting that Chin-hui should graduate from the Rockies’ farm system and be a big leaguer by 2002. Baseball writers from far and near are already making him a hot topic, and he has been mentioned in Sports Illustrated as a player to keep an eye on.

Unfortunately for Chin-hui, however, being a national hero does not exempt him from national duties. Young Taiwanese men must serve in the military for two years. When asked about this speed bump on his fast track to the majors, Chin-hui replied, “Next year, we will host a world cup of baseball, and the directors of our professional league said that if we play well, the two-year stint might be reduced to two months.” When it comes to motivational tactics that sure beats “Win one for the Gipper.”

The appeal of minor-league baseball in Asheville could be compared to that of our blossoming music scene. There’s a sense of innocence coupled with limitless potential. Fans are drawn in by the friendly, cozy atmosphere and entertained by players with raw talent who don’t seem jaded or overpolished. They’re approachable, human and perfectly capable of making mistakes — faux pas that only add to the uniqueness of what we’re seeing. All the while, lurking in the back of our minds, is the thought that some of these guys are going to make it big.

As our interview drew to a close, I asked Chin-hui what made him happiest in Asheville. “Every day, my happiest time is to be here on the field with my teammates, my friends. Although we don’t speak each other’s languages, we can still communicate — we joke, we laugh and have fun.”

As he spoke, Chin-hui looked out over the field — covered with players tossing balls, stretching and preparing for that night’s game. Breezy banter peppered their fluid motions. These were young men at work, and loving every minute of it.

Just then, baseball’s nemesis — Mother Nature — punctuated Chin-hui’s words with a clap of thunder. Warm dollops of summer rain coated us instantly. Groundskeepers scrambled to cover the infield, while players sought dry sanctuary in the clubhouse. Through it all, Chin-hui politely stood his ground, waiting for me to formally end the interview. We shook hands, said our goodbyes, and he jogged away — a grin on his face and a skip in his step. This was not some million-dollar commodity, but a young man playing a game he loved — running to meet up with his friends in their clubhouse.

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