Will China Be Good to Baseball?

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Photo by Kerri-Ann O'Sullivan

While it didn’t have the impact of the fabled ping-pong diplomacy that helped China and the United States normalize relations in the early 1970s, the first Major League Baseball game played in the Middle Kingdom on Saturday was notable for several, albeit lesser, reasons.

The debut tilt between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres before a near-sellout crowd of about 12, 200 consisting of perhaps three fourths curious Chinese and one fourth expatriates and tourists was played to a 3-3 tie. The phrase “kissing your sister” came to mind as the announcer proclaimed: “There will be no extra inning in today’s game” in English and Chinese, though it’s likely virtually none of the Chinese locals understood the surly implication of a “tied” baseball game, it all sort of missed the point to a baseball fan.

“No extra innings? That’s outrageous!” yelled one New York City native amid a chorus of scattered boos from similarly outraged purists. On the other hand, recalling a long ago 19+ inning 2-1 snooze fest between the Colorado Rockies and the Chicago Cubs in Denver years ago, I was somewhat relieved. (The second game ended in the Padres favor 6-3 and featured lead changes, manufactured runs and some spirited fielding. It was, by most accounts, more like it.)

The concession supplies were sporadic and limited but you couldn’t beat the prices. Much of the pre-game speculation among expats centered not on the starting lineups but on whether beer and hot dogs would be available. Even foreigners who didn’t know a double play from double-vision understood the concept of a relaxed afternoon at an outdoor stadium, beer and foot long with mustard in hand.

Long lines at the concession stands didn’t guarantee a thing, however, as many waited patiently for make-believe hot dogs, hamburgers and Mexican tacos courtesy of a fake Western Beijing restaurant chain only to find nothing but peanuts when they got to the head of the line. “I finally hijacked a supplier,” said my seatmate upon returning with three “tacos” after a 2-inning absence. “Saw the guy toting boxes of these to the food stand and just stood in his way and shouted politely at him until he sold.”

Beer was plentiful, however, and – unlike every MLB stadium in the United States – extremely cheap at about US $1.50 for a 12 oz can (last I heard, it was $6.50 and up for a cup of suds at a big league park). Getting into the kind of baseball spirit that once-fueled near riots at Shea Stadium in New York, some enthusiasts were buying beer by the carton and toting the boxes back to the stands – no tempers were seen to flair. This was an exhibition, after all.

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Photo by Kerri-Ann O'Sullivan

Security was tight, but ultimately friendly. As one onlooker, an American named Nick Frisch quipped between explaining arcane concepts such as “RBI,” “bunt,” “sacrifice fly” and “infield fly rule” in Chinese to his polite but uncomprehending woman friend: “We've already gotten used to KFC, Starbucks and McDonald's. Now, maybe the juxtaposition of PLA uniforms and baseball is something we'll get used to as well."

Despite the martial overlay, the atmosphere inside was something like a minor league game in the US, except the fans were more polite – applauding and cheering virtually every foul ball - and there were no bizarre promotional concepts like a 2003 “Ted Williams Popsicle Night” (first 500 fans received a free popsicle) sponsored by an Arizona minor league team after the announcement that the late-baseball legend would reportedly be cryogenically frozen in nearby Scottsdale.

Taunting the outfielders – an honorable baseball tradition in the US – was also notably absent, and much love was shown by and for “The Swinging Friar,” the Padres’ portly mascot as well as a clutch of bare-bellied, red and silver spangled pom-pom swinging Chinese cheerleaders.

There was sporadic organ music with the traditional “Charge!” ending supplied by a few knowing fans, and canned music between plays ranged from the Who, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Beatles to hip-hop. The traditional seventh inning stretch rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was, sadly, a non-starter in our 88-yuan ticket section where only five expats rose to belt it out as everyone else looked on bemused at this American tradition.

"In general overall the ballpark had a good feel," Padres manager Bud Black told Associated Press. "The between-innings entertainment was not unlike what we have in the States." Yes, except in the States you don’t have hostesses with large prop cards explaining the between-innings entertainment to the fans.

While both Dodger manager Joe Torre and Dodgers vice president Dave Winfield had promised “front line players” and “we’re not going to give you a bum roster” at the original January press conference touting MLB’s China debut, the reality was different, though few seemed to notice or care.

Padres closer Trevor Hoffman was perhaps the biggest name, though his skills weren’t needed Saturday. Asian faces were few, though LA’s veteran Korean pitcher Park Chan-ho lasted 5 innings and LA shortstop Hu Chin Lung, a Taiwan native, received cheers simply for his name every time at bat. Score one for cross-strait relations.

Unlike Japan, Korea and Taiwan, baseball is virtually unknown in China, though according to MLB historians an American named William Henry Boone formed the Shanghai Baseball Club in 1863. Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel reportedly played exhibition games in pre-Revolution China and MLB further asserts that baseball was the “unofficial game” of Mao’s troops during the civil war, though it was banned and forgotten during the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, the point is business, (See sidebar below) and MLB is hoping to eventually find the same success as the NBA and Yao Ming, though it may be a long march. If the American experience is any guide, don’t look for baseball to supplant ping-pong anytime soon. Cricket’s first international game was played in the United States in the 1840s, for instance, and the silence since has been deafening. Ditto for major league soccer, really. Despite infusions of international stars such as Pele in the 1970s and David Beckham in the current league, what the world calls football, most American just call boring when it is played by anyone other than 12-year-old kids. .

So what success can baseball expect in a nation where badminton stars are the norm and playgrounds are packed with children playing soccer and basketball with nary a field of dreams in sight?

There are an estimated 100,000 children’s groups learning the game in China, and a sprinkling were on hand Saturday in team uniforms.

“Very good to see it with real players in real life, not on DVD,” said one coach – a Korean named Chung Hyop-cho who lives in Beijing and works for a Chinese youth baseball club, the Horses. “My boys have learned something I hope. Maybe the next Yao Ming of baseball is here today.”

Barring that, a sudden archeological discovery of a Paleolithic ballfield in Xi’an with terra-cotta catchers and outfielders could prove that China “invented” baseball. That might be the answer.

Laying Baseball’s Foundations in China

By Adam Coughlin

Major League Baseball didn’t hit a homerun over the weekend but they put the ball in play.

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Jeff Brueggemann teaches baseball to a group of Chinese reporters prior to the weekend's games. Photo by Adam Coughlin

The more than 12,000 fans at Beijing’s Wukesong Stadium on Saturday were treated to hotdogs, a home run and the wave as the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres played each other in the first Major League Baseball game ever to be contested on the Chinese mainland. The game fittingly ended in a tie. However, there is only one historic first game and during Sunday’s game empty seats and a lack of enthusiasm were apparent. Yet, MLB officials were optimistic.

"I am very confident that someday after I'm gone and we do as well as I think we are going to do in China, people will say that's where it all started," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig told espn.com.

Selig hopes these games can launch baseball into the national consciousness of China. And there are more than a billion reasons why he is hopeful for this to happen.

With the success of the NBA, which according the Washington Post earned $50 million in revenue in China in 2007 and has had more than 400 million NBA items sold there, every sport from Formula One racing to the NHL is trying to get a piece of the action. A survey done by the Shanghai Star showed that four out of every five sports stars adored by Chinese children come from the NBA, and 75 percent of young people aged 15 to 24 are fans of the game.

But the NBA had a seven foot, six inch advantage over its competition: Yao Ming. His rise to stardom in the NBA, similar to what Liu Xiang has done for men’s track, ushered in a young era of fans.

“Basketball got lucky with Yao Ming,” said Eugene Orza, associate general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “When you get off the plane, the first thing you see is Yao Ming. Obviously, to have a great Chinese player would be a big boom [to baseball’s success].”

When asked if Wang Chien-Ming, last season’s 19-game winner for the New York Yankees, could be that type of star for baseball Orza flatly said no.

“He’s from Taiwan,” Orza said. “It would never work.”

But Orza didn’t seem pressured to transform China into a baseball factory.

“We’re not coming here to convert them to anything other than the appreciation of the sport,” Orza said. “Go to a baseball game, chat between innings, talk about the last movie you saw, the great book you read. People talk about how they want more action, but then they complain about how fast-paced the world is. Baseball has that right blend.

“It’s not going to happen in my lifetime,” Orza continued. “I don’t see baseball being able to say it’s an international sport until it’s widely played in Great Britain and China.”

But baseball does consider itself international. According to MLB.com, the league’s official website, Major League Baseball has more players from foreign countries than any other professional American sport and continues to grow internationally.

Major League Baseball doesn’t have to look far to find success in Asian countries. Baseball is extremely popular in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. In fact it was Japan who won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 beating traditional powers like the United States, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. And yes, also a team from China.

“The living conditions of Chinese people also mean that baseball will not be popular in the short term,” said Li Jian, a former sports and business reporter. “In the USA, your dad may play baseball in the backyard or in a nearby park. But in China, the only place for you to play baseball is in the schoolyard. Most of parents cannot afford a house with a backyard and. And the park in the neighborhood is either small or too crowded. And dare you to play any game near a street, is full of drunk and half-blind car drivers?”

Jeff Brueggemann of teaching he game to the Chinese. Brueggemann was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1977 and spent six years in the organization as a pitcher. Eventually he gave up on his major league dreams and got involved in business. Business led him to China where on several occasion he couldn’t escape his baseball past. Now, Brueggemann is involved in Major League Baseball’s envoy program, which, according to its website, utilizes top college, high school and former professional coaches, selected based on their experience, expertise and passion for the game, to teach the fundamentals of baseball in foreign countries. Brueggemann has spent the past six years in and out of China teaching baseball. He said he has seen some real improvement from the players.

“I helped open the first baseball academy a few years ago,” Brueggemann said. “So, I’m very active in teaching the game to high school kids. We’re seeing progress but we need to just have them keep playing. I am ready, in my own life, to move to Beijing full time and really take this up a level.”

While the potential is there in the long run, success comes in slow steps. Team China, which is currently training in Arizona in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, which coincidentally will be the last Olympic Games featuring baseball, learned just how far they need to go during the World Baseball Classic. They lost all three of their Asia pool games by a combined score of 50-6.