November 30 04
In search of baseball's Yao Ming
China takes a swing at America's Pastime
A version of this story appeared in the July 18, 2004 edition of the South China Morning Post (subscription required).
by DAN WASHBURN
SHANGHAI -- Seattle Mariners scout Ted Heid has spent the past four years searching China for "diamonds in the rough." He hasn't found any yet. Right now, he says, he is closely monitoring the progress of a lot of "lumps of coal." But Heid will be back in Beijing and Shanghai next year, and the year after that. China's baseball boom is coming ... sometime. Only no one seems to be sure when it will finally arrive.
"You can't discount China in anything, whether it is business or any athletic event," said Heid, the Mariners' Director of Pacific Rim Operations. "Once they make it a focus, their greatest asset is people."
Currently, however, nearly all of China's 1.3 billion people are oblivious to baseball, a sport still trying to find its footing after being banned in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. To Chairman Mao, baseball was a bourgeois indulgence that had no place in a communist society.
Today, most Chinese aware of baseball still consider it a quirky American curiosity. Although a major league movement to change that perception is afoot, Heid and other observers agree one thing must happen before the crack of the bat cracks the vast Chinese market: Baseball needs to find its Yao Ming. China needs to produce a player who can cross cultures and compete with the world's best. It needs a player the masses can rally around, a player children point to and say, "I want to be like him."
"If we can get a Major League player from China someday, it's going to rapidly accelerate our development," said Jim Small, Major League Baseball's Tokyo-based Vice President of International Market Development. "We certainly have seen what the NBA has been able to do there." Small said Major League Baseball plans to invest millions of dollars toward the growth of Chinese baseball in the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, making China Major League Baseball's top development priority worldwide.
Baseball is fast becoming a priority for the Chinese government, as well, Small said. There will be a Chinese team in the Olympics four years from now, and China does not want to be embarrassed at home. "But it's not just about the Olympics," Small said. "I've had many people tell me this. They want to be relevant in (baseball). When they see the Koreans and the Taiwanese and the Japanese right now with more playing ability, that, from a competitive standpoint, doesn't sit well with them."
While Small believes the Big Leagues could see its first Chinese player in as few as five years, Heid -- who in four years has never encountered another Major League scout in China -- is somewhat less optimistic. "Will they ever have Major Leaguers? Hopefully in my lifetime, yeah," the middle-aged Heid said. "They are probably 10 to 15 years behind, maybe more. But that doesn't mean it's going to take them 10 to 15 years to catch up."
If China is to produce a Major League-caliber player, he will likely come through the ranks of the China Baseball League, China's first and only professional baseball league. The fledgling CBL, its third season of existence just completed, is a testament to how far baseball has come in China. It is also a testament to how far it still has to go. The world's most populous nation fields just four teams -- the Beijing Tigers, Guangdong Leopards, Tianjin Lions and Shanghai Golden Eagles -- although two expansion teams are expected to be added for next season. One of the teams will likely end up in the city of Chengdu, capital of the southwestern Sichuan Province, which borders Tibet. Hong Kong is rumored to be among the other cities in the running, with media tycoon Rupert Murdoch mentioned as a possible owner.
But the CBL is far from being a money-earner for anybody. Last season, the four teams averaged little more than 3,000 spectators per game ... combined. The league has a handful of corporate sponsors -- Mizuno, Canon and Northwest Airlines -- but attracting Chinese sponsors has been a struggle. "It's a tough road," said league founder Tom McCarthy, a New Englander, his thick Boston accent unaffected by 15 years spent marketing sports in Asia.
Along with a team of investors, McCarthy ponied up a quarter-of-a-million dollars to get the CBL off the ground two years ago. "I'm in it because I like the game, but obviously we'd like to build a business," said McCarthy, whose company owns all Chinese baseball marketing and sponsorship rights through the 2008 Olympics. "We're happy that we're building the sport, but the business is taking a little bit longer. In our first full season, we were close to breaking even. We're a little closer now. There's a chance we might break even this year."
Shanghai, considered China's most international city, has a reputation for being more open to new cultures and customs than most places in China. But Shanghai has been the slowest to take to baseball, with attendance figures lagging far behind the other teams in the league. Officially, the Shanghai team drew an average of 425 fans last season, a number that by most accounts is quite generous. Even with ticket prices at a relatively low US$1.25, there were games where the number of spectators was, at best, several dozen. At one drizzly game early in the season, everyone in the stands -- everyone -- was able to take cover in the small VIP viewing area, with plenty of room to spare.
Just weeks earlier, Shanghai's 2,500-seat stadium was packed beyond capacity for the CBL's season opener, which was preceded by a colorful ceremony featuring plenty of pomp and circumstance, some dancing dragons and the league's new mascot, the Monkey King. The sky was filled with doves, balloons and confetti. The seats were filled with neighborhood schoolchildren, whose attendance at the game was mandatory -- and whose reaction to the game was one of bemusement. "We don't know much about it, so maybe we think it is boring," said Guo Xue Fang, a high school English teacher. "To tell the truth, I don't like the game, but I have to sit here with my students. It is a slow game. It is not like volleyball. It is not like basketball."
Every time a bat hit the ball, though, the crowd screamed. Hits, foul balls and routine outs all generated the same reaction. Foul balls hit into the stands caused even more confusion, and louder screams. Those who were paying attention, scrambled to get out of the ball's path -- no one tried to catch it. More than once, a foul ball remained on the bleacher floor untouched, an unwanted souvenir. By the fourth inning, the crowd began to exit the stadium en masse -- school was letting out. Soon, only about 50 fans remained.
Yan Ming, a high school physics teacher, was one who stuck it out. He sat by himself and smiled constantly. "I like the feeling when the ball is in the air," he said. "I get very excited. I feel excited for the batter." A small group of students, all females, stayed and stood in the bleachers behind home plate. They said enjoying the game required patience. They were giving baseball a chance, watching, waiting, hoping something would happen that would make the sport's appeal obvious. "Since it's the national pastime in America," explained 17-year old Jia Hui, "there must be a reason."
Basketball and soccer dominate the headlines here today, but China does, actually, have a rather long and interesting baseball history that dates back to the 1800s. Three Chinese colleges had teams prior to 1900 and the country's first intercollegiate game was held in 1907. Four years later, on the eve of his Chinese Revolution, Sun Yat Sen, who played baseball as a youth in Hawaii, organized a baseball team in Hunan Province -- it was a cover to teach young revolutionaries how to throw hand grenades. In 1934, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played in Shanghai. The Hall of Famers led a team of U.S. all-stars over the Shanghai Pandas, a team founded by Liang Fu Chu, who some have dubbed the "grandfather of Chinese baseball."
Liang's three sons, now in their 70s and 80s, are baseball's elder statesmen in China today. They played for the Pandas in the 1940s and 50s when the team often took on squads comprised of U.S. military men stationed in Shanghai. "And we usually beat them," 82-year-old Liang You De, the eldest son, said with a chuckle after taking in a ballgame during a visit to Shanghai. "The Panda team was rather strong." A resident of Beijing, Liang dedicates much of his free time to getting Chinese youths involved with baseball. "But it's very hard," he said. "Rules are complicated. Equipment is expensive, too expensive for many parts of China. Baseball is progressing. It's advancing, but very slowly."
According to McCarthy's research, approximately 156,000 Chinese -- or .012 percent of the population -- play baseball. But that total is up more than 200 percent from where it stood just two years ago. Much of the growth has been in the northeast, surrounding Beijing and Tianjin. Not surprisingly, those two cities are home to the top two teams in the CBL. On the other hand, perennial league loser Shanghai -- China's biggest city, with a population fast approaching 20 million -- has by far the smallest number of baseball players of all the major markets.
"Shanghai is a challenge," McCarthy admitted, noting that there are too many other entertainment options in the city and that the team's stadium in the remote Pudong area is not easily accessible. The team actually rents its field from a baby products company, which by some odd course of events came into ownership of a baseball diamond several years ago. Beneath the bleachers on the third-base side is a preschool. Fans walk through its entrance to get to their seats.
At the other end of the spectrum is Tianjin, a coastal city southeast of Beijing and the closest thing China has to a baseball city. In the mid-1980s, after a visit to Tianjin, former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley gave the city a stadium, the same stadium the Tianjin Lions use today. The Lions lead the CBL in attendance with more than 1,000 fans per game. "The people there know baseball," McCarthy said. "They boo at the right time. They cheer at the right time. If an umpire misses a call, they're all over him. They know exactly what's going on."
CBL teams are owned by the China Baseball Association and their respective city governments. Tianjin officials have always taken their baseball seriously, often investing big money on foreign talent in order to maintain their domestic dominance in the sport. In 2003, the Lions brought in former Major Leaguers Steve Rain and Edgard Clemente, nephew of baseball legend Roberto Clemente. Non-Chinese players are paid as much as $15,000 a month by the Lions' brass. A top-level Chinese player is lucky to earn $500 during the same period of time. "Right now, it's not much money," said Huang Fang Wei, a 23-year-old pitcher for the Shanghai Golden Eagles. "But I think it will get better. It's disappointing that not many people care about baseball in China, but it's a career for me."
Huang, like most baseball players in China, did not choose baseball, it was chosen for him. When, as a small child, he was selected to attend a state-run sports academy, Huang was handed his destiny in the form of a ball and glove. He said he has grown to love baseball, but he could do without some of the odd questions he fields from his confused countrymen. "They ask questions that I don't even know how to answer," Huang said. "It can get frustrating, because when I answer these questions, I end up having to explain the whole game of baseball from the basics on up."
Huang's Shanghai teammate Chen Qi has played before big crowds in America with the Chinese National Team. He said before that trip he didn't realize how popular the sport of baseball could be. "When I came back to China, I was really disappointed because all of the stadiums were empty," Chen said. "I kind of feel like a trail blazer here. I don't know what the future is going to be like. Maybe baseball won't become big in China. But I still feel like I am part of something special."
Mainland China has produced one player who has made it to the minor leagues in America. In 2001, the Seattle Mariners signed -- some in China at the time said stole -- then 16-year-old Wang Chao, a lanky 6-foot-5 pitching prospect. Wang has been slow to develop and is currently inactive. While experts agree that a handful of Chinese baseball players could step in and be productive minor leaguers immediately, the overall level of play in the CBL is generally considered on par with smalltime college ball in America. Chinese baseball players tend to be very strong in the fundamentals, but they lack game experience.
To that end, McCarthy has seen to the expansion of the CBL schedule in each of the league's first three seasons. In 2002, the teams played just 12 games. In 2003, a season with a two-month stoppage due to SARS, they played 24. This year, the schedule grew to 36 games, some of which actually made their way onto local TV -- but the CBL had to agree to play on Sunday mornings in order to get the coverage. "I had never heard of anything like that before," said McCarthy, who was an assistant basketball coach at Boston College in the early 1980s. "But, hey, it's a niche. You've got a time slot."
And, in Major League Baseball, the China Baseball Association has a very powerful friend in its corner. Last fall, the two organizations signed into a development agreement designed to grow baseball from the bottom up in China, launching youth programs throughout the country. Major League Baseball will also provide high-level instruction for China's top players, coaches and umpires. For example, last fall, former Major Leaguers Jim Lefebvre and Bruce Hurst coached the Chinese National Team in the Asian Championships. In return, Major League Baseball secured the right to scout and sign Chinese players unencumbered by bureaucratic red tape.
When those signings will actually start happening is anyone's guess. But Major League Baseball's Small, ever optimistic, can't help but wonder "what if."
"We're talking about a country with 1.3 billion people," Small said. "And just by the numbers, God has touched somebody's shoulder so that shoulder is filled with fast-twitch muscle fiber, which you need to be able to throw a baseball 98 miles an hour. He is there somewhere. So if we can find him and train him, you don't know how quickly someone can move up to the Big Leagues."
Dan Washburn is a Shanghai-based freelance writer.
Photo by Shen Kai.