A few months ago, I took a train from Taipei to Hsinchu, a place people kept telling me was the Chicago of Taiwan, a city known for being windy. Like many people who go to Chicago, I was going to Hsinchu for a baseball game. I'd be interviewing players of the the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions about their diets.
The Uni-Lions is a team in the Chinese Professional Baseball League (essentially Taiwan's MLB). It was founded in Tainan in 1990, and has won the Taiwan Series Championships five times in the last decade alone. I'd be talking to the players before their away game against the Lamigo Monkeys.
At the train station, my Taiwanese friend Eric gave my taxi driver directions in Chinese, only he wasn't in the car with me. I was holding my iPhone up while Eric talked on speakerphone through a Facebook Messenger call. I can't speak Chinese and had no way of communicating with most of the baseball players, so Eric graciously agreed to translate my interviews this way from Hualien, a small town in Northeast Taiwan.
When I got to the stadium, it was 88 degrees outside with 77 percent humidity. The team's general manager took me to the field where the players were warming up. The GM brought me an ice-cold bottle of tea. "Drink this, no sugar," he said. The cool beverage could not combat the torrential downpour of sweat running down my face.
I drank my tea and watched the players stretch, toss baseballs around, take some practice swings. The first person I talked to was Jair Francoise Jurrjens, a pitcher from Willemstad, Curaçao. He's played for the Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, and Colorado Rockies before arriving in Taiwan in February.
Jurrjens said that his diet changed when he arrived here. Since the team doesn't provide food after the games, which often end late, finding dinner can be a challenge. "The first couple of days I was like, 'What are we going to eat?' The only thing open is Micky D's. Your diet's going to go bye-bye on that one," he said.
His most memorable meal has been eating shark fin soup. "It was not bad, it was interesting. I don't know if I would go back to it," he said. "I come from an island, nothing surprises me. I would try anything."
Through Eric's translation, first baseman Kao Kuo-ching told me that he definitely believed his diet affected his performance, which was unlike some of the other players I spoke with. Kao eats less in general before a game, avoiding carbs and loading up on protein.
Kao believes that when he eats more meat before the game, he has more power. Because he's not eating as many carbs, he feels lighter.
Before the games, the team usually eats together. The team's managers will arrange the food for the players. "It's up to the management team where they go for this pre-game meal," Eric explained through his translation. The meal can be anything, from a bento box to hamburgers to fried chicken.
"They eat heavy before the games," Jurrjens said. "Pizza, a lot of rice—white rice, fried rice—a lot of chicken, a lot of beef, noodles. The stuff you in America you eat after the game, here you eat before the game."
Catcher Lin Chih-hsien tries to avoid carbs, but that effort can be challenging. "It is difficult for players in Taiwan because it's difficult to find meat without carbs," he said.
Lin told me a little bit about his training routine. During the off-season, Lin does TRX and more rigorous weight training, focusing on his lower body for that catcher squat.
During the season, the team works out under the direction of Masaru Isshiki, its strength coach from Osaka, Japan. Isshiki keeps the players on a carefully planned workout schedule. Training is easier during the season when there are about five games a week. If there's no game coming up, Masaru has the players doing more running and conditioning.
I talked to an outfielder, another pitcher, and a new recruit from California before the sun set and the game started. Most players said that they didn't think much about what they ate; their diet would be the same whether they were about to play a game or not.
In the comfort of a blasting air conditioner, I sat inside the press suite watching the game. After a few innings, I left the chilly confines to hang out in the stands. Fans were up on their feet every few minutes to dance and cheer with the Uni-Girls. Drums thundered, horns and trumpets rang out often. People ate corn dogs, but I didn't see any peanuts or Cracker Jack.
"They love baseball here," Jurrjens told me. "They don't care if a team is losing by ten runs, they keep cheering until the last out. It's a different look at baseball."