Four days have passed since the Bandits USA team arrived in Taipei, Taiwan, for nine days of international youth ambassadorship, powered by baseball. While talk of any life-changing, permanent effect on our boys' lives would be premature at this point, let's agree to say, their eyes have been opened. There are just so many interesting things that they've experienced so far that it's hard to distill to a few paragraphs. But let's just start with a simple item, familiar to any parent trying to raise a 13- or 14-year-old boy: food. We've been showered with kindness and generosity since our arrival in Taipei, and nothing illustrates this better than the feasts that have been set before the boys, family style. Huge round tables, each equipped with a four-foot-diameter lazy susan, have been crammed with wonderful, and to our boys, unusual, traditional Taiwanese fare. The boys, insisting on sitting at one table together as a team without their dads, have surprised us with their willingness to jump right in and eat shrimp with their heads on, abalone and vegetable stew, braised pork knees with bamboo, egg and mushroom soup and dozens of other things they have never seen before. And while I think they'd be happy to dive into a burger if one were put in front of them, they've grasped the importance of showing gratitude for the welcome they've received by tasting everything and finishing a whole lot of these dishes.
Taipei is a city of eight million, exhibiting elements of the cleanest, most high-tech cities in the world on one side, and the gritty third world, full of two-stroke scooters, smog and endless tin-roofed storefront repair kiosks on the other. Need your scooter repaired? You have a choice of hundreds, or thousands of family-run ten-by-twelve foot open-front shops. Stop in at one of the city's thousands of 7/11 stores while you wait, or visit the local freelance dentist. There seems to be one on every block, also open to the elements while the garage door is open. And they offer daily specials, if I read the iconography correctly. Flashing neon and LEDs signs, car detailing shops and street food closets compete for your attention. Zoning regulations are nonexistent, which reflects the unwieldy, uncontrolled vitality of the city itself. Residences are built practically under freeway interchanges, thriving local noodle shops exhaust their cooking fans directly into the sidewalk at eye level, and small packs of feral dogs share the pavement with cars parked outside the open-air Alfa Romeo repair shop. It's all a bit overwhelming to the average American.
The modern elements of the city, best illustrated by the Taipei 101 Tower and it's über-high-end mall, are as clean and ordered and you'd find in any U.S. city's central district. The contrasts between the two extremes are striking. The Bandits Boys have taken it all in with eyes wide; that is, when we can get their eyes off of their iPads and phones.
You may be asking, how and why did this group of B+ players arrive in Taiwan to play baseball? In reality, they did not "play their way" over here by winning a tournament or a season, nor did they "pay their way" completely, although the latter is probably the more accurate description. The truth is, Bandits coach Mark Pelley has done business in Taiwan for years, and his Taiwanese friends and contacts share a love of the game. His wife Sherry is from Taiwan, also, which makes the trip for their son Justin even more significant. It's possible that Baseball is as prominent in the collective Taiwanese consciousness as that of the average American, or even more so. It's very popular here, and when Mark received a sincere invitation from his Taiwanese friends to come here and play, he took it to heart and took action to make it happen. It took Mark a few years to build support for the trip, but as Taiwanese and American sponsorship gained momentum, 2013 shaped up as the year to make it happen.
As a proud dad of two Bandits, with a world view shaped by visiting a hundred cities around the world as a former pilot of a USAF airlift aircraft, I was on board with the idea right away. My kids have visited dozens of U.S. cities and have even made it to Australia with us, thanks to interline agreements between airlines, and my position as a Southwest Airlines pilot. So the idea of traveling literally to the other side of the world to have my son play baseball didn't seem as insane to me as it would to a lot of parents. And as further details of the logistical and financial arrangements emerged, the reality shaped up rapidly. The plan gelled, the coaches secured commitments from several dads to make the trip, and we all headed to the airport last week, August 6th. Twenty-three hours later, the team arrived in Taipei.
The team settled in to the hotel for the first evening of the trip, and took the first full day to visit the Taiwan History Museum and a few other sights. They got to the baseball part of the trip on the third day, playing a doubleheader against two highly ranked Taiwanese teams. The host teams had been hand picked by the commissioner of youth baseball in Taipei, and came from "baseball schools" in Taipei. These schools act as development sites for promising young athletes, who specialize in their sport 100% of the time, taking classes almost as an afterthought. There is only one sports season for these boys, and it's year-round. Couple this with the tropical climate of Taiwan, perfect for year-round outdoor practice, and the resulting teams are incredibly well drilled, impeccably respectful of the game and of their opponents, and utterly devoid of any weaknesses.
Our first contest resulted in a 5-1 loss, which we saw as a success considering the quality of the competition. The team from Taipei did not put a foot wrong, they hit the ball a ton, and threw more junk -- sliders, curves, splitters, you name it -- at our boys than you could imagine. Their throws were laser-sharp, they hit almost nothing but line drives, and they executed all the "small ball" items with 100 percent success. The second game of the doubleheader was a lopsided win for the Taipei team, and the Bandits did not play well. I think the combination of the hour (3:00 PM local, 2:00 AM Chicago time), the heat and humidity, both over 90, and the demands of the long trip over here all combined to put the good guys into full zone-out mode. Things have improved since then, although it took until the sixth game, on the fourth day of baseball, in our second city, Taichung City, that the stars all lined up -- almost -- for the team. The Bandits played a team from a regular junior high school outside Taichung, and the administrators from this school used our upcoming visit as motivation for their players in the classroom. Their players had to maintain top grades in order to play on the team, and they had also completed many extra practices in preparation for the game. The result was a 7-3 loss for the Bandits, but the game was a lot closer than the final score, in this case. This was a team we enjoyed playing very much, and I'm confident we would at least split any series against them.
So overall, the Bandits are carrying a zero-for-six record up to this point in their "Ultimate Travel Baseball Experience." Today, we're heading down towards Kaohsiung, our third city in Taiwan. We're expecting even higher heat and humidity, different cultural experiences and three more first-rate opponents on the diamond. So far, the experience has been more than anyone could have predicted. Our boys have carried themselves with a great deal of maturity, and throughout their visit, have shown the highest level of respect for the game and for their hosts and opponents. As we explained to the team, each one of them may be the only American young person their opponents ever meet. They've taken that responsibility to heart, ensuring a positive experience for each other and for the Taiwanese players. Judging from all the high-fives, handshakes and even hugs after the games, this truly will be an unforgettable experience for all the players and supporters on both sides.