On opening night for the Marlins in April, it was Miami vs. the Detroit Tigers. As the booming voice in the stadium announced the lineup, a new guy walked from the bullpen onto the field: Number 54, Wei-Yin Chen, a native of Taiwan.
South Florida is not known for having a huge Asian population, but lately, more Taiwanese fans have been showing up at Marlins Stadium.
When Chen signed a five-year, $80 million contract with the Miami Marlins back in January, Anthony Kang, a Miami-based lawyer who grew up in Taiwan, was psyched.
“I was at work and I was extraordinarily excited and started sharing that news with baseball fans at work, which, unfortunately — there are not many baseball fans at work,” said Kang.
And though his co-workers are not that into baseball, the relatively small Taiwanese community of Latin-dominated Miami is, and they turned out on opening day.
“The Taiwanese community here isn't that big so I thought I would recognize a lot of them on opening night, but I didn’t,” recalled Kang. “They were new [Taiwanese people] who never really showed up at different networking events or social events. But they're at the games.”
Kang’s parents spend much of the year in Taiwan and he Skypes with them most days.
"We talk about baseball a lot," says Kang. "We would send text messages if Chen's pitching or even just when the Marlins are doing well."
In a recent call, Kang’s parents showed him their local paper with a giant spread on Chen.
When it was announced that Chen would join the Marlins, a Taiwanese reporter was dispatched to Miami just to cover the player during home and away games. Taiwanese television broadcasts every Marlins game when Chen pitches.
“People [are] oftentimes late to work,” said Kang. “The better the start he has, the longer he pitches. And the longer he pitches, the later people are to go to work.”
Philip Wang is director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Miami. Similar to a consul general, he represents the Taiwanese government in South Florida. He’s a self-described “patriotic baseball fan,” and lately his job has consisted of fielding a lot of calls from people wanting tickets to the Marlins.
“We were overwhelmed and immediately we [got] a lot of requests from our local expatriates: 'Can you arrange [for] us to meet Wei-Yin?’”
Now, any time Wang returns to Taiwan, Marlins swag is essential.
“Otherwise I bring other things and they’re like, 'No, no, no we want Marlins, we want Wei-Yin [stuff].' That's the situation.”
Taiwan is tiny, about a fifth the size of Florida. There are only about 15,000 Taiwanese expatriates living in the state, but trade with the small island is sizable. It’s the eighth largest Asian trader with Miami International Airport. The Port of Miami also sees a lot of Taiwanese trade.
So it’s not far-fetched that the new president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, would make a stop in Miami during her first trip overseas as president. But what made headlines were stories and pictures of President Tsai meeting Wei-Yin Chen, who presented her with Marlins dog bowls.
There’s a very real sense that Chen being in Miami is an opportunity to introduce South Florida to Taiwan.
But that relationship works the other way too. The Marlins see the national pride behind Chen as a chance to bring new people into the game.
“It's a celebration of our brand,” said Juan Martinez, director of events and promotions for the Miami Marlins. “We’re the team of the Americas, you know, because of where we are. Miami is now not just Hispanic-specific, if you will. It's a global community and we're seeing that [at the Marlins too].”
Even though the population down here may be more diverse than it was, the Asian community is still relatively small.
“We had to do a little homework, you know being born and raised in Miami,” said Martinez. “The Hispanic marketing stuff comes easy. The Asian marketing is something that I reach out to a few of my colleagues and other teams that do have large Asian communities like San Francisco just to get a few notes.”
Among those notes: How to translate "Marlins" into Mandarin.
The Marlins now have a Mandarin Facebook page with thousands of likes. The team held its first Taiwanese heritage night back in July. It was way more successful than they expected.
Henry Chen and a bunch of other students from Taiwan drove down from Gainesville, the city home to the University of Florida, to be part of the night even though they knew Chen wouldn't even been playing — he was on the injured list.
They did catch a glimpse when Wei-Yin Chen was presented with the first Marlins jersey in Mandarin.
“He stands for Taiwan,” said Henry Chen as his friends cheered. “He comes from Taiwan, he plays so well and that’s why we’re very excited.”
This is just what the Marlins want: new, excited fans who might be willing to take a trip.
“It hasn't been a traditional market where [Asian travelers] come down as far south,” said Martinez. “Usually they go to Disney World, like most people when they come to Florida. So it's great to see the exposure he's brought to us playing here with us.”
And Wang, from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, is already seeing more people flying in from Taiwan just to catch a game and see Chen in person.
“I can assure you more and more people in Taiwan [are now like], 'Oh! Where is Miami?’” he says.
It's roughly 13,900 miles from Taiwan. And Chen is still on the injured list, but could return to the diamond by the end of the month.