Field of dreams it's not, but it's $4,000 a month


TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Mike Bosco is a baseball player who knows the score.

"I'm just a regular Joe Blow," he says. "I'm not a Jose Canseco, who can hit 25 home runs for you. But I can play any position except pitcher, and I can put the ball in play when I'm at bat."

With these skills, Mr. Bosco once had dreamed of making the major leagues at home. But after a year in the Class A minors with the Reno, Nev., Silver Sox, he took a hard look at his future, his $850-a-month salary and a recruiter's pitch to play in Taiwan.

It was an offer the 28-year-old couldn't refuse: $4,000 a month, the minimum paid to foreign players here, plus an apartment for the baseball season. "Here you can play ball and put away some money for the future," he says.

And so it came to be that the San Jose, Calif., native was the starting left fielder for the Jungo Bears one recent Saturday night as they met the Sanshang Tigers at Taipei's baseball stadium, a modest facility boasting what must be the world's most uncomfortable seats.

Professional baseball is in its fourth season on Taiwan. Two expansion clubs, including Mr. Bosco's team, have been added this year to the league's original four teams.

The level of play, boosted by up to six foreigners per team, roughly matches the U.S. minors. Club sponsors say they lose money -- losses they write off as advertising for their department stores, hotels and construction companies.

But many Taiwanese love baseball. The island's Little Leaguers are frequent world champions. Last year, Taiwan's Olympic squad set off a frenzy here by beating Japan and taking a silver medal behind Cuba.

Games generally draw 5,000 to 7,000 fans, many of whom watch while listening to a second game on the radio.

In the outfield bleachers, hundreds are organized into cheering squads that spend virtually the entire game banging drums, setting off air horns and chanting in unison to the driving rhythms of electronic organs.

Vendors circulate lethargically around the Taipei ballpark, peddling chicken dinners, Coca-Cola and "binlang," a nasty betel-nut mixture that is chewed somewhat like tobacco. The stadium's announcer peppers lulls in the action with chatty asides. The park is so small that foul balls frequently fly out into the city's thick traffic.

Mr. Bosco is known here by two Chinese characters that are pronounced "my kuh," somewhat similar to his given name. On a team that also includes the starting infield from Taiwan's Olympic squad, he's more of a utility player than a star.

Tonight is not Mr. Bosco's night. He strikes out twice, bunts out to end an inning and almost hits into a double play to end the game. His team loses 3-1 and stands next to last in the league.

But each time he comes to the plate, a bit of delighted murmuring -- "my kuh" . . . "my kuh" -- runs through the crowd. "They like me here," he says after the game. "I think they have me here not so much because of the way I play but because I know how to get along. I enjoy it. I like the culture."

On the field, Mr. Bosco reinforces that impression with old-fashioned hustle, including always emerging first from the dugout to take his position.

Off the field, he tries to keep his patience intact and his mouth shut.

The tiny studio apartment provided by his team doesn't have a phone or regular hot water. His wife, Debby, can't get used to the food.

"I've been trying to get a shower head put in my apartment for two months," he says. "You just get run around in circles here. There's a lot to complain about, but I don't like to complain. A lot of other people wouldn't deal with it."

But there are compensations other than money. The next night, Mr. Bosco gets three hits, knocks in four runs and for the time being moves up among the league's batting leaders -- prompting a Taipei sportswriter to wax on about his weight-training regime.

And there is always the alternative of going home. Mr. Bosco played his first season here in 1990 and then returned to the United States to get married and drive a truck for a bottled-water company. He found he missed baseball.

Now he plans to stay here as long as he can, before using his hard-won savings to go back to college to finish his degree in education. "If they ask me back," he says, "I'll come back."

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