BASEBALL AND THE MAJOR LEAGUES IN CHINA

BASEBALL IN CHINA

rightBaseball is little more than a curiosity in China but it is developing a following in high schools and universities. There about 60 university teams and a national team with American coaches. The biggest impact that American baseball seems to have had so far is the popularity of New York Yankees baseball caps. Counterfeit Yankees and Dodgers caps are common sights in China.

Baseball is known as bangqiu, or stick ball. It was introduced by exchange students returning from Yale in the 1870s. Early teams were organized by missionaries. The sport was banned in the Cultural Revolution. Mao derided it as an “evil western influence.”

As of 2007 by one calculations there were only 20 baseball diamonds in China and only 50,000 people had ever played baseball. In the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 China lost all three of it games by a combined score of 40-6, losing 18-2 to Japan, 10-1 to South Korea and 21-3 to Taiwan. One Chinese sports writer told the Los Angeles Times, “Baseball is a tough sell here. Imagine nobody watching while the best of China’s players are out there...People in this country just don’t have an understanding for baseball.”

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Baseball has struggled to gain a foothold in this soccer- and basketball-loving country. China's national baseball team lost six of seven games during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; after the Games ended, the specially built stadium was demolished to make way for a shopping mall. [Source:David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, November 01, 2011]

Americans have been trying to develop baseball in China for some time. Former Dodgers owner Peter “O’Malley, oversaw the building of a stadium in the coastal city of Tianjin in 1986.In January 2011, China announced it was going to hire 20 baseball coaches from Taiwan as part of an effort to boost its baseball program.

Baseball Bats Widely used as Defensive Weapons in China

Reporting from Dingzhou, China, David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Truck driver Wang Yonggang has never seen a baseball game or sung "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." He couldn't explain a sacrifice bunt. But Wang's got a good eye for bats. His is a lightweight aluminum model with a long barrel and a sticky rubber grip. He treasures his Chinese-made club so much that he keeps it tucked under the seat of his rig. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, November 01, 2011]

"I need it for protection," Wang, 32, a native of Inner Mongolia, told the Los Angeles Times. He hauls heavy equipment across busy northeast highways stalked by thugs looking to steal loads and siphon fuel. "There's local hooligans everywhere and they'll threaten you if you don't pay them money." Wang has so far resisted using his stick---even the handful of times he's been shaken down for cash at roadblocks. But if he's ever attacked, Wang hopes that a few hacks of his fire-engine-red bat will scare away the criminals.

In recent years, the offensive tool of America's national pastime has become a defensive weapon of choice in China. Though baseball has barely made a dent in the consciousness of Chinese sports fans, bats are a familiar accessory in a country where the pursuit of money at all costs and a weak faith in law enforcement have led many people to take matters into their own hands.

The Shanghai Morning Post recently reported that bats had become a handy tool for drivers hoping to intimidate people should they find themselves in traffic disputes. Chen Hai, a Shanghai arts dealer, often travels with an aluminum bat lying across the front passenger seat of his BMW sedan. "I haven't had to use it yet, but it makes me feel safe and prepared," said Chen, 35, who transports valuable artwork through rural provinces that neighbor Shanghai. "Things are unpredictable once you leave the city." He considered buying a kung fu sword but decided it would be too unwieldy. So he settled on a 34-inch purple-and-green bat, meant for self-defense, that he found at a camping store for $8.

Before mass urbanization took hold and most Chinese lived on farms, people protected themselves with the family shovel, rake or hoe. Today, city dwellers have few options. Guns are outlawed. Daggers and machetes require permits. Shanghai and Beijing even require buyers to register their names to buy a kitchen knife.

Bats are less lethal and thus more attractive, said Chi Yiwei, a manufacturer in eastern Zhejiang province. "You make the wrong move with a knife and you could accidentally kill someone," said Chi, a self-described former hoodlum. "Hit someone with a bat, you'll likely just injure them." Chi makes a steel-alloy club with a long, thin barrel of exceptional toughness. His website features a video of him smashing red bricks in half with his bat and running it over with a car. In both instances, the bat survives without a dent.

Chi said the breakthrough for the domestic bat industry came six years ago, when authorities banned the online sale of popular collapsible steel rods that fit into pocket-sized holsters. That gave sellers the idea to turn to baseball bats, whose availability had grown after the industry shifted from the U.S. to China about a decade ago.

Wang, the trucker, said he couldn't resist buying a baseball when he purchased his bat for about $9 at a sporting goods store. He figured he and his 8-year-old-son could give the exotic American sport a try before he took the bat on his next trip. "Nobody could hit the ball," Wang said. "We kept swinging and missing."

Baseball Bat Industry in China

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “China is now the world's largest manufacturer of metal bats, filling orders for companies such as Van Nuys-based Easton Bell Sports and Hillerich & Bradsby Co., makers of the famed Louisville Slugger brand, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. in Maryland. Search today for baseball bats on China's leading e-commerce site, Taobao, and you'll find an abundance of options under "self-defense." When anti-government riots erupted in Xinjiang province in 2009, young men took to the streets waving pool cues, steel rods and enough baseball bats to field a couple of teams. It's no accident that piles of bats can be found for sale at highway rest stops, where they often command prominent positions at the entrances to convenience stores. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, November 01, 2011]

Such bats would never be confused with the $125 handcrafted Marucci wooden beauties swung by St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. Often thinner than conventional U.S. bats, many Chinese models would be useless on the diamond. Customers here don't seem to care. Who needs a tapered handle or fat sweet spot for slugging kneecaps?

Dou Kai, owner of a bat-making company, said his most popular seller was a 30-inch aluminum club resembling a fungo bat, a specialized baseball bat used to hit balls to fielders during practice. He also makes a 25-inch model of hard steel that looks more like a billy club and weighs 52 ounces---about the same as the heaviest wooden bats used in the big leagues. "That one's purely for self-defense," said Dou, pointing to a stack in his workshop emblazoned with logos such as Commando and Ronin, a reference to the Japanese samurai legend.

Dou started making bats four years ago. Before that, he manufactured kung fu equipment---long spears, metal chain whips and stainless-steel axes---using skills his father handed down to him. His company also makes brass knuckles, nunchucks and throwing stars. Then wholesalers started asking Dou if he could add bats to his lineup. So he sent workers to a bat factory to learn how.

Within months, he was churning out metal and wooden bats from two sheds in his hometown of Dingzhou, a bleak industrial city about a three-hour drive southwest of Beijing. His company, Shanren Sports, now employs 30 workers and produces 6,000 bats a month, about half of them for customers inside China. "I spend more time thinking about how they can defend better. I'm not invested in the game," said Dou, a soft-spoken 35-year-old. He can demonstrate proper use of his martial arts weapons, but admits he'd be dumbfounded standing at home plate.

Professional Baseball in China

The government-backed China Baseball Association was launched in 2002 and has four teams in its league and a 30-game playing schedule. The League has had a tough time. It got off to a bad start when its American promoter pulled out and the league was turned over to a Japanese company.

China's professional baseball teams routinely play before empty stadiums. David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Many Chinese are surprised to learn that their country has a professional baseball league with seven teams. The 2011 champions, the Tianjin Lions, hail from northern China. The patchy grass and austere bleacher seating of their home field, Tian Ti Dodger Stadium, evokes little of Chavez Ravine. The Tianjin Lions and Beijing Tigers are considered the best teams in the China Baseball Association league. The Tianjun area is regarded as the focal point of Chinese baseball. The Beijing Tigers won three straight Chinese League baseball championships: 2003, 2004, 2005. The Lions swept the Guangdong Leopards in the final series in 2006. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, November 01, 2011]

No Chinese has ever played in the Major Leagues. Some Chinese-Americans and Taiwanese have. Pitcher Lu Jiangang played for a farm teams for the Japanese team the Chunichi Dragons. Wang Chao, a mainland Chinese, plays for a minor league team affiliated with Seattle Mariners. Sun Lingfeng, a center fielder with the Beijing Tigers, has been called the Chinese Ichiro. He was the Chinese League MVP in 2005 and has helped his team to three straight championships.

See Olympics

Chinese National Baseball Team

The Chinese national team has been was coached by former Dodger and Major League manager Jim Lefevre since 2003. The Chinese beat a good South Korea team in a qualifier for the World Baseball Classic in 2005.

In the World Baseball Classic in 2008 China got pounded 14-0 in a mercy-rule game against South Korea that lasted only seven innings but stunned favorite Taiwan in game broadcast live in China and held its own in a 4-0 loss to Japan, the eventual champions, in a game in which Chinese team members were smiling and high fiving each other in the locker room after the game. All in all it wasn’t a bad performance for team that hadn’t played since summer and showed up late with 10 pitchers when it was originally planning to bring 16.

Baseball at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

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Chen Junyi in 2008
China made its Olympic debut in baseball in Beijing against Canada. Before the game there were lion dances and other forms in entertainment, China held their own in the first three scoreless inning but began to lose it after Canadian batter Scott Thorman hit a three-run homer and eventually lost 10-0. Later the Chinese team came back and surprised everyone with a 12th inning 8-7 victory over Taiwan in a game in which the Chinese team scored five runs in the 12th innung to come back after the Taiwanese scored four runs in the same inning.

The Chinese national team was coached by for former Dodger and Major League manager Jim Lefebvre. After the Taiwan game he said, “That was probably the most exciting game I’ve been part of. This is the one that really turned the program around.”

In the game against the United States, catcher and top player Wang Wei tore a ligament in his knee and was knocked out of the game in a home plate collision with the U.S.’s Matt LaPorta. Wang plays in the Class A California League in the Seattle Mariner’s farm system. LaPorta later suffered a mild concussion after being hit on the head by a pitch from Chinese reliever Chen Kun, who was ejected.

Major League Baseball in China

Major League baseball is attempting to introduce baseball to China, eying the huge market potential for the sport with yuan and dollar signs in its eyes. It has teamed up with the China Baseball Association to promote baseball throughout the country. As part of the campaign, professional and university coaches from the United States have visited China to scout for young talent; top Chinese coaches have traveled to the United States for on site training with Major League clubs; and the Major League has set up development programs in China such as Pitch, Hit and Run, which is popular with American kids.

The Major League has made some progress. A 2008 survey by market research firm TNS Sport Asia found that 16 percent of Chinese have some interest in base ball and 26 percent are interested in Major League merchandise. There are now little league teams in place like the industrial town of Wuxi that play with uniforms and equipment supplied by the U.S. Major Leagues. A school that has a baseball program encourages kids to watch televised Major League games and has Chinese translations of magazine articles about baseball. According to the Chinese Baseball Association 4 million Chinese play the game.

If baseball is ever going to reach a level of popularity approaching that of basketball it needs a star player to capture the imagination of fans and provide a role model children who might take up the game. The sport was dealt a blow by its removal from the Olympics.

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Zhang Yufeng in 2008
The goal of Major League Baseball is to nurture an equivalent of Yao Ming, who will bring millions of fans to the sport. Dodger coach Joe Torre, on a visit to Beijing, said, “You don’t have to be very tall to play this game of baseball. There is a place on the field for a person of every physical stature.”

Major League Baseball opened an office in Beijing on the summer of 2007. It is training coaches who in turn will train 100,000 Chinese youths. Hall of Farmer Cal Ripken Jr has visited Shanghai courtesy of the U.S. State Department to promote baseball there. He found a receptive audience among schoolchildren who had never heard of baseball. The World Series was broadcast on a Chinese sports channel for the first time in 2007.

Efforts by the Major Leagues to Introduce Baseball in China

In November 2003, U.S. baseball officials signed an agreement with China to exchange coaches, provide equipment and develop baseball in schools. The United States State Department has funded a program to send Chinese baseball players and coaches to the United States for training

Major League baseball has launched an ambitious plan to introduce baseball to 100,000 elementary school students. It has donated bats and thousands of balls and gloves to participating schools. But there are a lot of obstacles to overcome, namely that there are not enough fields to play baseball. One reason the current campaign is aimed at elementary schools is that young children can play on smaller fields because they don’t hit the ball very far.

The Major League strategy is to find an area where it can make progress at the least cost and dig in for the long haul. It set up an office in Beijing in 2007, has sent a traveling baseball amusement park around the country to expose people to the game and established programs at primary schools to teach baseball fundamentals. When parents raised concerns about kids getting hurt squeeze balls and rubber bats were introduced.

A coach of the Wuxi team told the Washington Post he still has trouble getting kids to run to the and throw to the right base. One player said when he saw the game the first time “it looked so strange, a bunch of people waving a stick around.” His father says of his son: inexperience is an asset: “He is like the pure, whitest paper on which the Americans can drw their masterpiece.”

Yankees and Dodgers in China

The New York Yankees have sent coaches, scouts and trainers to China to search for talent and help raise interest in baseball. Under an agreement the Chinese Baseball Association will send players and coaches to Yankee facilities in the United States and Yankee personnel will assist the Chinese national team. The Yankees may be the first to open an academy in China of the sort that have sprung up in the Dominican Republic.

The Yankees and the Seattle Mariners have each signed two Chinese players. The Yankees acquired pitcher Kai Liu and catcher Zhenwang Zhang. The Mariners got catcher Wei Wang and infielder-outfielder Yu Bong Jia, both players with the Beijing Tigers.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres played an exhibition game in Beijing in March 2008 at the stadium hosting Olympic baseball games. Dodgers manager Joe Torre and Padres vice president Dave Winfield---both key members of the Yankees in the past---visited China to promote the event. Security concerns prevented a group of Cub Scouts from coming on to the field as planned. About 12,000 people showed up. Concession stands sold hot dogs and peanuts. There were also cheerleaders and women that cleaned up discarded peanut shells.

China Offers to Buy Dodgers

In September 2011, Forbes reported, what would be the biggest ever sale price for a Major League Baseball team, Chinese investors have put in a $1.2 billion bid for Frank McCourt’s Los Angeles Dodgers, according to the Los Angeles Times The bid is headed by Los Angeles Marathon founder Bill Burke and funded in part by unidentified Chinese state-owned investment institutions and others. [Source: Forbes September 1, 2011]

According to the Los Angeles Times, the bid terms proposed by the Burke group call for an all-cash payment to buy the Dodgers, all real estate related to the team and the team’s media rights. Attorneys for McCourt have said he could try to keep Dodger Stadium and the surrounding parking lots. The bid expires in 21 days, with the goal of closing a deal within 90 days, subject to the approvals of the bankruptcy court and Major League Baseball. The Times story says that the previous record sale price for a major league franchise is $845 million, set two years ago when the Ricketts family bought the Chicago Cubs from Tribune Co.

Image Sources: 1) Wideweb ; 2) Asian Biz

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2012

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