MIAMI, May 7 (UPI) -- Playing in Taiwan once was the last option for Justin Nicolino to continue his professional baseball career. Now the former Miami Marlins pitcher is one of many ex-Major League Baseball players on whom fans depend for entertainment.
Nicolino, 28, pitches for the Rakuten Monkeys in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, one of the only active leagues on Earth.
The CPBL's popularity has exploded since its April 11 season opener. American viewers, starved for sports, have flocked to Twitter streams of the games because MLB and other leagues have suspended games due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"I guess it was my last option," Nicolino said. "I had thrown for MLB teams in January and thought I threw really well. I thought my off-season pitching was going to help, but there was no real interest."
Nicolino signed with the Monkeys after he and his wife, Jordan, discussed his 8,500-mile move to Taoyuan in northwest Taiwan.
"I said I might as well do it," said Nicolino, who played in 50 games for the Marlins from 2015 to 2017. "At this point in our lives and my career, I have no one really jumping to get me [in MLB]."
Each of the four active teams in the Chinese league is allowed to sign four foreign players.
Other former MLB players in the league include Henry Sosa (Houston Astros), Ariel Miranda (Seattle Mariners), Lisalverto Bonilla (Cincinnati Reds), Ryan Carpenter (Detroit Tigers), Elih Villanueva (Marlins), Esmil Rogers (New York Yankees) and Josh Roenicke and Ryan Feierabend (Minnesota Twins).
Several Minor League Baseball journeymen also play for the Monkeys, CTBC Brothers, Uni-Lions and Fubon Guardians.
"It's really crazy because before I got this job, it was like 'someone is going to sign me. I know someone will call.' It's crazy that we chose the right opportunity and the right opportunity came knocking," said Nicolino, who pitched in the Dominican Winter League before he joined Rakuten in February.
CPBL, MLB games differ
Minor league journeyman Bryan Woodall sat in the Brothers' dugout as the roof reverberated from cheerleader stomps. Fan screams and tones from trumpets overwhelmed his ears.
That was five years ago, two days before Woodall played in his first game in CPBL. He said he misses that atmosphere now -- fans aren't yet allowed in stands. The league plans to reopen its park to a maximum of 1,000 fans by Friday.
For now, those fans are replaced by mannequins and robots that can play instruments.
Players compare the atmosphere of a typical CPBL game to college football. Fans stand to cheer. Each team hires 12 to 20 cheer girls to interact with the crowd in stadiums that hold 10,000 to 20,000 fans.
The mascot lineup includes a severed fish head. Cheer girls, players, mascots and a lucky fan dance on the field with the game's MVP after each game.
Tie games can last only 12 innings before they end, with no winner. The CPBL is a more offensive league than MLB, with each team often scoring at least 10 runs per game.
CPBL teams rely on their experienced foreign pitchers to carry them through a five-game weekly schedule, with three foreign starters and two local starters used each week.
The league plays two half-seasons instead of one full season, similar to the format for most levels of Minor League Baseball. The winner of each half plays in the best-of-seven Taiwan Series.
CPBL players use buses and a high-speed trains to travel to games, with their longest trip about 4 1/2 hours on the island that sits roughly 100 miles off the coast of mainland China. Players navigate between Tainan,
The skill levels of the players in the CPBL and the Korean Baseball Organization in South Korea are similar to Minor League Baseball. But the Korean Baseball Organization includes fewer roster limitations and more former MLB players.
In Taiwan, "the talent is here," said Woodall, who is 2-0 this season as Guardians pitcher. "There is a lack of depth, but it's definitely a high level of baseball. You are seeing a great game and seeing guys drive in runs all night."
Woodall, 33, is in his sixth season in the CPBL. The 21st-round pick in the 2008 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks spent seven years in the minors -- without a big league appearance -- before he moved to Taiwan.
Players in the CPBL are paid a fraction of what players make from MLB franchises. Contract terms are not disclosed, but estimated top salaries for foreign CPBL players can approach $600,000 a season.
CPBL player temperatures are taken frequently, due to the pandemic. Equipment and facilities are sanitized often. Everyone at the stadium -- other than the players -- is required to wear a mask.
"We are trying to do everything to protect ourselves and others to make sure the season will go on without interruptions so we can bring a sense of normalcy to general public and baseball fans worldwide," CPBL broadcaster Richard Wang said.
Ratings provide opportunity
Woodall trains in the off-season with players from the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics. Nicolino has spoken with players in the United States about his opportunity to play in Asia. They said players in the States like to watch the games.
A job in the CPBL before the coronavirus pandemic didn't have the appeal it does now. These days, players have more opportunities to show off their skills as viewership for the league has ballooned.
Older players on MLB rosters are looking at opportunities in other countries because they face the reality that their careers could end sooner than anticipated because of the pandemic work stoppage. Time could run out for them to showcase their abilities as their legs get slower, arms strength deteriorates and injuries pile up.
"With age, there comes that fear," Woodall said. "You worry about what you will miss when the game is gone. I can't take it for granted, whether I'm 20 years old or 40 years old."
Eleven Sports Taiwan -- the exclusive broadcast network for the CPBL -- said TV ratings haven't changed for the games, but its Twitter account has grown from 360 followers to nearly 23,000 since opening day.
The first five English broadcasts of CPBL games drew 5 million views on Twitter, with 60 percent of those watching from the United States.
"The feedback has been amazing," Wang said. "Our viewers thanked us for bringing baseball games to them to brighten their days."
Separated from family
American CPBL players live in apartments close to their stadiums in their four respective cities. The players' families generally travel to visit them once the regular season starts. Teams help pay for plane tickets and other travel costs.
"They are very accommodating," Nicolino said. "Before the pandemic, the team was adamant about making sure they could come visit."
Nicolino's wife and 2-year-old daughter live in Florida. The second-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2010 MLB Draft said he first wanted to go home to them when the CPBL season was delayed.
"The way my wife put it was: 'We are safe. We will be able to FaceTime, but you have to look at it as we will be able to support our family. You are one of the select few who can support your family playing baseball.'
"She does a good job of putting it in perspective."
Woodall was injured during the final year of his contract in 2014. He signed a deal in the Atlantic League before he left for the CPBL in 2015. He also had interest from MLB clubs, but opted for the financial opportunity provided in Taiwan.
"It has really worked out for me and my family," said Woodall, who takes his family on most road trips when they visit. Woodall and his wife, Christie, have a 1 1/2-year-old daughter and are expecting a second child.
CPBL weekend series include the Monkeys against the Brothers and the Guardians against the Lions. The first pitch for both series is at 6:35 a.m. EDT Friday. The series continue with first pitches at 5:05 a.m. EDT on Saturday and Sunday. The games will be streamed at Twitter.com/ElevenSportsTW. The Monkeys have won five of the last seven Taiwan Series championships.