TAIPEI (AFP) – American baseball legend Manny Ramirez quit Taiwan's EDA Rhinos Wednesday, breaking local fans' hearts just three-months after joining the team despite being the highest paid player in the league's history.
The 12-time All-Star had boosted attendance in the island's once-struggling Chinese Professional Baseball League as well as hitting the second-highest number of home-runs in the season so far.
But the former Red Sox slugger, who retired from Major League Baseball in 2011 following a drug-suspension, had a clause in his contract that allowed him to wave goodbye after three months.
"Ramirez told EDA Rhinos his decision today. We've tried everything we could to see if he would like to change his mind," the team, based in the southern city of Kaohsiung, said in a statement.
The team said it has doubled his monthly salary since April to more than $50,000 and offered him accommodation of two hotel rooms that costs Tw$50,000 ($1,675) per room each day in its bid to keep him in Taiwan.
The Dominican-American baseballer told his teammates that it was the first time he was playing so far away from home and that he missed his family, according to the statement.
"Somehow his leaving will have an impact on the team," Astrid Lee, EDA publicity manager, told AFP. "In order to offset the possible negative influence, we'll try to recruit some capable foreign players."
Ramirez slugged 555 home runs with a .312 batting average in his Major League Baseball (MLB) career.
The 12-time All-Star was named Most Valuable Player in the 2004 World Series, helping the Red Sox to their first title since 1918.
He was suspended for 50 games in 2009 for taking performance-enhancing drugs, and was caught out again in 2011, retiring after being handed another lengthy suspension.
The Rhinos, in return, said they respected his decision and appreciated his contribution to the team and the league.
The 41-year-old joined EDA Rhinos, formerly Sinon Bulls, in March, becoming the best known former Major League Baseball (MLB) heavyweight to play in the local league.
Since then, "Ramirez has caused a whirlwind in Taiwan," the statement said, in its reference to the team's performance and box office sales.
Ramirez's eight home runs in Taiwan was second only to the 12 homers of Lin Yi-chuan of the same team. His batting average was 0.352, sharing the second-ranking spot in the league with teammate Kao Kuo-hui.
Attendance across the four-team league was also on the rise, with games in the first two months drawing an average of more than 7,600 fans. That is higher than the average of 6,900 recorded in 1992 when the CPBL, in its third year, was at its peak.
Fan fervour has also been stoked by the national team's performance in the World Baseball Classic, when Taiwan progressed to the second round for their best-ever showing in the contest.
Despite the pick up in popularity the CPBL is still not certain if the loyalty of fans will hold.
"At this moment, it is too early to say. We must remember to work harder to provide a better service, like recruiting better players and improving the facilities of baseball stadiums, or risk being ditched by the fans again," CPBL spokesman Chen Chun-chih said.
The CPBL was set up in 1989 but eight years later was hit by game-fixing and gambling scandals, with three teams forced to close, cutting the number to four.
Disillusioned fans, who had grown up with the sport, boycotted stadiums and box office sales plummeted to an average low of 2,040 tickets per game.
A second rival league had been established in 1996, but did little to help the professional baseball sector, and the two competitions merged in 2003.
Dozens of players and coaches, including some foreigners, have since been indicted, though none have been jailed.
Observers are also questioning whether the positive effect will last on a league that has repeatedly been hit by match-fixing and bribery allegations.
"The existing boom is just like a firework. After it goes off, then everything is gone," warned Lee Heng-ju, a physical education professor at National Taiwan Normal University.