Though coaching in Taiwan was never Carlos Ponce's dream job, the man who made his name producing runs in Yokohama is glad to be back in the game and working while most of the sports world remains idled.
The 61-year-old, who joined the Taiyo Whales — now known as the DeNA Yokohama BayStars — in 1986 at the age of 27, smashed 119 home runs in his first four seasons in Japan's Central League. Like many imported players who succeed here, Ponce dreamed of returning to Japan to coach with his old club.
But when the call came in January, it was not from the BayStars, with whom he has maintained contact, but from Taiwan, where the Wei Chuan Dragons are playing one season in the China Professional Baseball League's minor league before moving up to the top flight next year.
"It was out of the blue," Ponce said by telephone from Taiwan. "I'd never been to Taiwan. And now I am so happy to be here."
When the call came, news was already spreading about the new coronavirus' impact on China. Taiwan, separated from the mainland by just 130 km, seemed like a risk and Ponce said he and his wife were concerned.
"We had our doubts, but she was OK for me to go. We decided it was time to try again," he said, and arrived in Taiwan on Feb. 7, when he went into two-week mandatory quarantine.
"In America there were people who were saying this was not even as bad as the flu, but Taiwan took it very seriously. Anybody entering the country has to stay indoors for two weeks. No exceptions. They don't mess around."
And though Taiwan's regular season games have so far been held without fans, the success of the country's policies saw a stretch of six consecutive days with no new infections reported.
"Six deaths in the entire country," Ponce said. "That tells you they were prepared and have done everything they were supposed to do."
Although players aren't wearing masks on the field, or in the clubhouse, he said, masks are worn when traveling.
And while Major League Baseball and Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball are both in limbo, waiting and seeing when it might be safe while making contingency plans to open their season should the pandemic allow it, Taiwan is looking at allowing fans back in the ballparks, starting with 250 per game.
"It's only 200 or so, but it's the right way to do it," said Ponce, who is hoping his experience working with hitters in Taiwan will lead to something bigger, just as his minor league production in the Milwaukee Brewers organization opened the door for four-plus seasons in Japan.
The Dragons, a reincarnation of a franchise that disbanded after the 1999 season, last year reached an agreement to rejoin CPBL, and then started assembling a team.
"At the beginning of this year we were overmatched," Ponce said. "We were getting beat bad. But we started playing better, we have good players and we are executing fundamentals, and we are winning."
Ponce, whose career high in home runs in America was 21 for Double-A El Paso in 1983, said he made a number of adjustments in Japan that allowed him to exceed that figure each of his first four seasons here. He led the CL in RBIs twice and led one time apiece in doubles, triples and home runs.
He's now passing on some of the lessons he learned in order for the Dragons hitters to develop. And if he's successful in this role, perhaps another opportunity will open for him in Japan.
Ponce has returned to Japan occasionally and received a warm response from the fans, but still dreams of a longer stay — in uniform.
"Of course, I want to go back and manage or coach," he said. "I had hoped it would be with DeNA, but who knows. If the chance comes, I want to take it."
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